By Sarah Hatfield, Education Coordinator

I’m not sure if you’ve ever boiled maple sap down into syrup, but the process takes a while. At least it does in the old school way we do it (buckets, no reverse osmosis, wood fire). Depending on the amount of sap, anywhere from three-and-a-half hours to six hours are spent in our little stone building. While there are constant tasks like dumping sap, transferring sap, adding firewood, and skimming foam, there is a lot of time to simply ponder and observe.

Last night I noticed a sort of white crustiness on some of the stones that make up the stone walls of the sugar shack. Not all of them, just some. I started to wonder if it was crystallized sugar since it was so close to the pans. Of course, to determine that, I tasted it. Not sweet. It was also not salty, which was an observation that led me to think it probably wasn’t mineral content from the rocks brought out by heating and cooling with the steam.

It also didn’t smell moldy or of mildew (otherwise I wouldn’t have tasted it – even I have my limits). Which means it is something else. Have the rocks always looked like that and I just never noticed before? Is it some other sort of mineral deposit from the evaporation of the sap that only forms on some of the rocks due to their mineral content? I have so many questions as my mind wanders.

And then, it is so easy to get sidetracked. Sitting on the bench, a blister beetle was walking across the blanket one night. Why is she awake? Where did she come from? The weather is warm enough to make the sap run, so perhaps whatever lair she chose for overwintering also was consistently warm enough to trigger her awakening. I released her under the bench, into the cool, damp world of the brick floor, hoping she could enter her cold-blooded slumber again as the temperature plummeted.

One day, while surveying trees before hanging buckets, we saw a furry critter scampering from tree to tree, climbing up, going ‘round and ‘round investigating every captivity. Not a squirrel, it was bigger and darker. Not a fisher, it was too small. Not a pine marten (though how cool would that have been!). Not a weasel, no obvious white. It eventually went in a cavity and disappeared. We watched, and were surprised when it emerged and finally stayed still enough and in view to get binoculars on it. Mink! Climbing trees? Not near water? What? In research, it says they will rarely stray from water, and rarely climb trees. Well, we dubbed this one an ‘upland mink’ as it didn’t read the account of itself and scampered away into the woods.

Thoughts and observations during sugar season abound (at least when there isn’t company, then we mostly just chatter). Often it is in relation to the syrup itself. We’ve noticed that on sunny, clear days, the resulting syrup from the batch seems to be clearer faster, dropping the sediment to the bottom quickly. On cloudy days or when the sap has run at night, the syrup is also cloudy, the minerals suspended longer, though the jars do eventually clear. Is that always true? Do the trees respond to the weather in the content of their sap? If so, why? If not, why have our observations over the last 8 or so years showed that?

I love this time of year. I love the permission to sit and think and ponder and posit. I love the ability to just watch the world and engage with non-stressful, non-productive wonderings. My brain will go other places, too. Bigger ideas like the transfer of energy between living things and that all our sugar for the year comes from these 20 trees. How cool is that? How do we return energy to them? They do get the wood ashes from the syrup fires spread around at the end of the season, the nutrients left feed them through the summer.

It is a fertile time for thoughts and plans, from the garden layout to improvements to the chicken coop to how to set up a better turkey pen. It is also a time to be both more active and less frantic, to take things in stride and simply prepare for what may come. While we are always thinking, this is the season for more unboxed and messy thought.

The uncertainty of the weather controls the sap flow, which controls our time, and so we can’t make plans (which we don’t mind!). And so for the three to eight weeks that we are on syrup duty, we exist in a sort of time limbo; we are bound by the sporadic happenings of the natural world, less so the constraints of the 40-hour-a-week world. It is nice, to shed that mantle of responsibility for a time, and with it, the conventional and obligatory things I must think about.

I wonder what it would be like to live completely by that natural ebb and flow of activities; to have my daily tasks determined by the weather, day length, temperature, and season. I’ll get there someday, but for now, syrup season is the time when the 20 sugar maples in the backyard dictate my schedule, and I couldn’t be happier about it. As I skim foam and collect sap and breathe in the sweet steam rolling of the boiling pans, my mind wanders even as my hands tend to the work. This is a good way to live one’s life.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.