The Zen of Maple Sugaring
by William Coolidge III
It is March 1962 and I am 7 years old. The fire roars up the stack in the big evaporator in our sugarhouse. I am sharing a potted meat sandwich and a bowl of homemade applesauce with my grandfather. The men and horses are on their lunch break, a respite from gathering the sap from the 2,000 buckets we have hung on maple trees throughout our sugarbush.
Gramp asks me to run outside and check on the workhorses to be sure that they have enough hay and water. That accomplished, I haul several more armfuls of slabwood for the fire before returning to sit once more at my grandfather’s knee. Depending on the amount of sap that is gathered, Gramp may be here well into the night, stoking the evaporator and producing huge billowing clouds of steam, as he draws off batch after batch of delicious, golden amber maple syrup…
March 1982 ~
Dad & I have just built a new, smaller sugarhouse on a slight bench above the brook, behind our 120-year-old farmhouse, on the Glen Road in Jay. I’m 27 now, and employed as a Correction Officer by the State of New York at Clinton Prison in Dannemora. This 6-week stretch that I spend making maple syrup with my father every spring is a retreat, of sorts ~ a return to a simpler time, of working with your hands, legs and back, producing a seasonal product, as my family has done for six generations. How soothing it is to perform manual tasks on the farm, in a low-key environment, and achieve that wonderful state of being relaxed and laid-back, as opposed to sitting through long stretches of mind-numbing boredom at the prison, randomly interrupted by moments of adrenaline-pumping anxiety and alarm. Gratuitous acts of brutality and violence are commonplace inside the walls of a penitentiary.
The fire roars up the stack in the smaller evaporator in our new sugarhouse as my father steps through the door. “Late night last night?,” he inquires.
“Yeah, they had a good band,” I tell him, as I stoop to feed more wood into the fire.
“I noticed you hadn’t fired up as early as usual.” Dad notices most things, I’ve noticed.
“Where do ya think we ought to gather first, when we start out this afternoon?” my father queries.
“Well, those big maples on Hilltop usually get thawed out earlier, and they’ve got those smaller buckets on ‘em to boot, so probably we should start there.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too,” was Dad’s reply. He had known the correct response all along, and was just quizzing me to see if I arrived at the same conclusion…
March 1992 ~
At 37, I’ve been employed at the prison for more than 13 years, but I’ve been making maple syrup for most of my life. I have a son who’s a little over 5 years old ~ the next generation of the Coolidge family to work in the sugarbush. I’m divorced, but have begun corresponding with a woman whom I dated during the late 70’s, and who will eventually become my wife; I do not know this at the time, however ~ I can only wish it to be so.
Dad and I invested in a brand new, larger evaporator recently, and had to expand the sugarhouse slightly to accommodate it. But it is worth the effort and expense, as it allows us to produce our syrup more efficiently, and turn out a lighter grade of syrup in the process. As we have spent countless hours in the sugarhouse over the years, we’ve become much more than just father & son, or business partners ~ we’ve become friends, able to talk about most anything, discussing problems large and small over a pan full of roiling maple sap, while country music softly emanates from the portable radio perched on its shelf in the corner…
March 2002 ~
We’re in the midst of another busy and successful maple season. I am married to the woman I was corresponding with ~ the woman I should always have been married to. And we have a son, another member of the family to carry on this syrup-making tradition. And that is good, for although I do not know it at the time, this is Dad’s last maple season; in eight months I will lose my father ~ my partner, my friend & advisor ~ to a massive heart attack. The center is ripped from my comfortable little world; I must re-group, reorganize and re-analyze my life ~ if I were to die at 68, as my father did, what do I wish to accomplish that I haven’t done yet? How do I want to spend the remaining years of my life? Have I handed down to my sons all the wisdom my father and grandfather passed down to me?
March 2006 ~
I’m 50 years old this maple season ~ half a century of life has suddenly become visible in the rearview mirror. My brother, Cal, is now my partner in the maple business, and we are still teaching the next generation, Billy and Ben, the fine art ~ the Zen, if you will ~ of maple sugaring. It is not about making money; it is about carrying on a tradition that is so much a part of our family, a tradition that has been handed down for so many years; I sometimes think that if my blood was tested for sugar content, it would run about 2% ~ the same as maple sap!
Making maple syrup, as in all farming, is about stewardship of the land; and working together as a cohesive family unit, and turning out a quality product that the family can not only use and enjoy, but also take pride in the fact that others enjoy it as well.
It’s been almost two years now since I retired from the prison system. I simply decided that I had spent enough of my life behind bars; had invested too much of myself into a world full of spontaneous violence, drugs, disease, deception and death. At this point in my life, my primary objectives are to spend as much time as possible with my loved ones, to be there for my children when they need support, advice and encouragement, and to keep my life as stress-free as possible. Being in the sugarhouse, with the spirit of my father ever present, is an invaluable way for me to accomplish all three…