Tuesday, March 31, 2009

April Fools...a week early.

It's hardly surprising any more - spring made a false start on the Ides of March, landing me with a bandaged finger and a bunch of tapped trees. The first day of spring brought, yeah, snow and a lot of wind: The following week teased us with winter. I boiled what little we collected over the week as I huddled in the stove-heated sugar shack (okay, so it got up to 64 degrees F in there - and stayed stubbornly in the 20s outside). But boil I did! And the strange weather has been a great opportunity for me - I can only collect sap at about the speed I can boil it. But then there wasn't enough snow to cool it off with... The sap froze solid in the bags and I collected five gallons of ice. One beautiful day of spring on Monday, and April Fools arrived a day early with The foolery? The temperature dropped, it snowed, and then sap ran. Heh, go figure.

As of today I have three and a half gallons of half syrup and 20 more gallons of unboiled sap collected. As to what is still running in the veins of those poor trees only tomorrow (or the first better weather) will tell.

How much wood have I chopped? I lost count of that long ago.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sugarbush Season

I've taken a break from writing fiction and decided it's time to write some more non-fiction. It's time to dive back into some photography, and while this isn't Pulitzer stuff, I thought I'd go back to blogging a bit about some local culture that I'm re-experiencing for the first time in years.

My family is fortunate to have a good bit of land left from when our homesteading pioneer ancestors settled our little backwoods community. Over the generations we've been a jack-of-all-trades family: lumbermen, sawmill operators, dairy farmers, game-keepers, conservation and fire wardens, well-diggers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, bookkeepers, hairdressers, school teachers, librarians, and whatever else it took to keep this little family running. Anyway, one of the things that comes with the territory - especially territory that has a nice stand of old-growth maple forest on it - is collecting sap for maple syrup in the spring.

My uncle was inspired to build a sugar shack and design a real sap pan, so when I was in grade school and middle school we had a passel of kids, aunts and uncles to collect the sap from each tree, a grandfather who loved nothing more than to sit for hours in the woods on a fine day and into the night tending the fire, and a grandmother who loved nothing more than delivering thermoses of hot chocolate and coffee and stuffing the all the hard workers with as many cookies as they could eat. Then we tapped a hundred trees and collected untold gallons of sap. We boiled and boiled and boiled and then had a big family canning party where we finished the syrup and canned quart after quart of the stuff. Our first computers printed labels proudly proclaiming the name of the long defunct family dairy and the classes came from school to tour our operations.

Now the passel of kids has grown and departed, the grandparents are no longer there to mind the fires and the cookies, and the aunts and uncles are retired and too tired to face such a big project. My sister has gamely continued tapping a few trees each year and boiling down enough sap to get a pint or two of syrup. This year, I've taken up the torch of family tradition, and I am (thus far) whole-heartedly enjoying it.

We have lots of snapshots of us running around spilling buckets as kids, but this year I wanted to get some digital pictures that document the process somewhat more rigorously. So I thought I would share a few of them here. I'm going to take some more time over the next few days while I'm tending the fires to get some more.

Our woods, barn in the field (used to have animals, now sadly abandoned), sap house is barely visible to the right of the barn in the forest. Opening the sap house for the first time this season...time to evict the mice...
The sap house (traditionally called "sugar shack").
Inside: the big black thing in the middle is the old sap pan over the old fire box - I think it holds nearly 30 gallons or something. Much, much too big for what I'll be able to manage on my own, not to mention how much wood I'll be able to chop. Yes, that is a deer head on the wall. Our family doesn't generally hunt, so I have no idea where that came from, but I suppose it's pretty much a mandatory decoration.
Sarah making her mean pirate face. We found this piece of pirate macheté work lying around - it may have belonged to Sam Campbell, and it's very, very sharp.

The actual process of tapping trees and collecting sap is really quite simple. First you drill a hole:
Then you put a tap into the hole:
Catch that drop!
Then you hang a bucket or a bag on the tap:
We used to use coffee cans, back when coffee cans were plentiful, but they filled up too fast and got full of tree bark and other junk, rusted and were really hard to store. Then we moved to old gallon milk jugs. But we discovered these bags with can hold a lot of sap and keep it much, much cleaner and are reuseable for many years. Some fancy operations even use a network of tubing that connects all the trees and delivers the sap right to a big storage bin, but we never perfected that. We also have a huge metal reservoir, but we haven't used it in years.

So we walk from tree to tree, collecting the sap into a bucket. Today we have a 40 gallon plastic storage tank, which seems like a lot, but when it takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down into one gallon of syrup, it's hardly a cash production line.

This year we're using the small wood stove at the back of the sap house to boil down the sap. You have to keep it well-stoked, so I'm spending a lot of hours just sitting in the woods baby-sitting the stove. As the sap boils off I just keep adding more and more to the 1 1/2 gallon pan on the top of the stove. This weekend I took the first batch of half-boiled sap off: about 4 quarts total.

I'll keep boiling until I get at least a couple of gallons of half-reduced liquid, then we'll take it up to the house to start the finishing process. We used to be really high tech about this, but some of our equipment has gone missing over the last couple of years, so we may have to be a little more creative (or at least less scientific and precise) about the whole thing. I'll write more about that as we get to that point.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Madagascar on my mind...

A Black Day for the Island Nation

While few of the big-name news networks have felt it necessary to mention my first love in foreign countries, the island that I called home for four years has been experiencing a political charade of almost comical proportions that has sent the country into a tailspin towards tragedy.

To keep a tangled, convoluted mess as simple as possible, the general summary is this: back at the end of 2008, the young, media prodigy mayor of Antananarivo started gathering protesters to voice their discontent with decisions made by the current president, Marc Ravalomanana, including to sell a large chunk of Madagascar's countryside to South Korea as agricultural land. This is a controversial decision on the global level - can developing countries create long-term economic stability by selling/leasing large amounts of "unused" land to developed countries that don't have the physical space to grow food to support themselves.

But that's already a tangent. The point is, Andry, mayor of Antananarivo, was seriously upset about this decision and a series of others and started calling regular demonstrations in the center of the city. Suddenly, the whole exercise in democracy took a shocking and violent turn when he declared himself the defacto president of the country and ordered his supporters to claim his "throne" by tearing down the empire of Marc, Madagascar's "Yogurt King."

So the first violent protests resulted in the looting and burning of any shop or store that might sell the President's products and many other "foreign" stores, regardless of what they might sell.

The violence briefly spread around the country, leaving all cities in turmoil and foreigners in a state of intense uncertainty. Where is this going? Is it going to get worse? Will things settle down? Stay? Leave?

A short lull hosted peace negotiations between the sides interrupted by weekends of tandem protests of both party's supporters in different parts of the city. Regularly these protests turned to looting, occasionally violent.

Then, in a twist of logic that could only make sense in Madagascar, Andry ordered his supporters to march on the Presidential Mansion so as to claim his right by force. They were met by armed guards and several supporters shot. There was a big political scandal of the guards must've been mercenaries because Malagasy would never fire on Malagasy.

So Andry decided to march on the ministries in order to gain control of the government by squeezing the head from the body. The ministries evacuated and locked the doors and left the military guarding it. Twice. Maybe three times? Anyway, Andry's supporters had no idea what to do when they go there, so they left.

Meanwhile, life has almost returned to normal except for some inconvenience and interruption in the capital city. A political stalemate ruled. Marc refused to give up his presidency, Andry refused to be refused, both refused to negotiate or compromise or admit wrong-doing of any kind. The UN was called in. Then Marc and Andry stopped showing up to the meetings.

Things suddenly went down the toilet last week as the military threw their hands up, not wanting to fight their own people any longer, even if it was to maintain the peace. It's still not entirely clear what happened, but it appears the military has split into two as well, and the end result is that the US Ambassador has called for the closing down of the US Mission in Madagascar (including the Embassy, USAID and Peace Corps), and is encouraging all US citizens to leave the country. My friends are buying tickets out this week.

The US Mission in Madagascar also evacuated all of their US staff and citizens in 2002. Now, seven years later in 2009, this makes Madagascar officially an "African country with a history of unstable politics." Describing this as "Madagascar's latest crisis" almost creates an expectation that there will be more and greater crises in the future - it is only a matter of time. What began as a revolution of democracy at the turn of the century is now a typical African conundrum of stubbornness and name-calling. (The only upside being that it is not a typical conundrum of machetes and rampant life-taking.) At a time of global economic crisis, the island is doing itself no favors by creating political turmoil on top of economic uncertainty.

It is painful to watch my American friends that have built relations and lives within the community be forced to sever them at a moment's notice. But it is even worse to be abandoning those Malagasy who have worked by our sides and have taught us so many things about their country. We are leaving them powerless and without an organization to support them as we pull away, yet again, as uncertainty reigns.

And so they will leave Madagascar on the brink of civil war and many lives interrupted. Again.