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Among the Forrest Trees
Chapter XVII - Sugar-Making


PEOPLE who never had experience in the work of making maple sugar can form but a very vague idea of what it really means. The work is so mixed up with what is pleasant and exhilarating that a great deal of it seems, betimes, more like play than work. It is true that some things that have to be done are hard to do. The carrying of the sap by hand, when the snow is deep and covered with crust that will almost bear up a man, and then let him down with his load of sweet water and perhaps spill it all, is not among the easiest or pleasantest kind of employment. This is not only tiresome, but it also tries one's temper sometimes pretty severely.

Then there is wood-chopping, which is hard work, and working around the fire and in the smoke is by no means like play. But after all is said that can be said about the hardships of sugar-making, there is more of pleasure than pain in it, more profit than loss, and more sweet than bitter; on the side of its advantages may be counted first, the saving of expense in buying your year's supply of this saccharine necessity in household furnishing. And the feeling of independence that a good supply of sugar gives to the housekeeper, who knows that she can't be taken short for sweetness, while she has a lot of cakes of sugar stowed away in some safe place, is among the advantages of the business.

And the pleasure of making our own supply of any thing seems to enhance its value. And another advantage is in the business itself after it has been started. The expense of starting is something, but it is not like an annual outlay. Once the business is fitted up, it will last for years without additional expense. There is no seeding nor feeding to be done in connection with a sap-bush, so that after the work of tapping the trees and boiling the sap is paid for, the rest is clear profits in sugar, molasses and vinegar.

About the last week in March John tapped his trees. The first run of sap is said to be the sweetest and best for making sugar. For three days and nights the sugar maples in John's sap-bush seemed to have entered into a conspiracy to try and drown him out. The troughs were filled and emptied, until no room could be found to store any more sap. His kettles, including Mary's dinner-pot and bake-kettle, would hold about fifteen pails and boil. Although he had kept the kettles going for two days and a night, the sap was accumulating on his hands. The store-trough was full and all the sap-troughs were nearly so.

"Seventy pails of sap in the store-trough and not less than a hundred pails in the sap-troughs," said John to Mary, when she came to bring him something to eat.

"I never thought that sugar-making was like this. You must be just about tired out already. Here you have been working for two days and a night without rest or sleep," Mary said.

"The old adage, you know, says you must 'Make hay while the sun shines,' said John; "but it may be changed in this case to `make sugar while the sap runs.' And that is what we are doing. It is hard work while it runs like this, but this run is about over. The wind has got into the north, and there will be no sap running to-morrow ; and I am ;lad of it, for it will take me all of three days to clear off what is on hand now."

"When will you `sugar off,' John? I am all expectation about that," said Mary.

"Just as soon as I can take one of the large kettles out of the row, without allowing the sap to run to waste," he answered.

"Do you know how to do it all right?" said Mary, as though she felt a little doubtful.

"I am not over confident that I shall have complete success at first. I often saw it done when I was a boy; but it is some years since I saw any sugaring-off done," was John's answer.

"Martha Greenleaf wants to see you sugar off sometime before the season is over," said Mary.

"All right," said John, "she shall have a chance to do so. After I get some experience in the business we will invite all of our backline neighbours, Greenleafs and Crautmakers, some afternoon, to come over and help sugar off. We will have a sort of backwoods jollification.

Mary insisted on staying in the bush that night with John. She had spent part of each day in the camp, as they had the little shanty that was built for temporary shelter. And while John was gathering sap and chopping wood, she kept up the fire under the kettles. The camp was some fifty rods from the house. Rover and Rambler (the deer) had already found the road to the camp.

That night Mary carried out some blankets and a pillow, and spread them on hemlock brush for John to get some sleep, while she attended to the kettles. Rover was to keep her company. The deer was shut up every night in a place fixed for it in one corner of the sheep pen.

John gathered up a lot of wood in front of the fire, so that Mary would not need to go into the dark at all. Then he laid down and soon fell asleep. Mary felt a little timid when at first John's heavy breathing told her that he was sleeping. But she consoled herself with the fact that John was near at hand, and was easily awakened in case of danger.

The stillness of the night was only broken by the gentle whispering of a slight breeze, as it spent its little force among the leafless branches of the trees, and the hissing and splashing of the boiling and foaming kettles on the fire.

Mary watched and worked by turns, as occasion required, until sometime past midnight, and John slept on. She sat down on a block of wood, and leaned against the side of the shanty where she could watch the smoke of the fire ascend among the tree tops in curling clouds of blue and yellow, as the light of the fires sent streaming arrows after them, painting them in such changeful hues.

Mary got a little dozy while sitting here, but presently her eye caught sight of an object that instantly banished all sleepiness from her. Among the shadows of a large tree, and in a deep shade of one of its limbs she saw what seemed to be two balls of fire shining out of the -darkness. They looked to her as if they were the size of tea-saucers. She stood and looked at the strange sight, wondering what it could be.

"Who-hoo, who-hoo, who-hoo-o-o-oo-ah-o-ah-awe," came from between the balls of fire, and a bunch of gray feathers on the limb began to move like a pillow shaking itself to pieces.

Mary sprang up, and went to wake up her husband, but just as she got him partly awake, the sound came again from the bunch of feathers.

"Who-hoo, who-hoo, who-hoo-o-o-oo-ah-o-ah-awe."

"I'll soon tell you who we are, if I can see you, my jolly friend," said John, as he rose to his feet and reached for his gun.

"Dear me, John, what is it?" asked Mary.

"It's only an owl," said he; "see how his eyes are shining in the dark. Keep quiet, Rover."

"Who-hoo, who-hoo, who—" Just here a bullet from John's rifle went between the eyes of the bird of darkness, and it never again frightened a woman, nor picked up a belated chicken. It dropped to the ground dead. "Go and fetch it, Rover," John said to the dog, and the next minute the sharp, bright eyes and the bunch of gray feathers were lying at Mary's feet.

Now all sleepiness was gone, and for the rest of the night, they all—that is John and Mary, and Rover—kept watch and attended to the fires.

As John had predicted, before morning the sap stopped running, and a heavy frost set in, which prevented any more sap that week.

By the next night John had all his sap in syrup or into the store trough, so that he intended to sugar off a small batch that evening. He fixed a place separate from the boiling place, where he could swing one of the large kettles by itself, while the others were kept full of sap, and kept boiling all night. Of course Mary was to be present at the sugaring off.

They put in syrup enough to make a nice cake of sugar, and tried that first. John had heard old men say that the quicker you can get the syrup into sugar the better after it begins to boil, and is thoroughly skimmed.

They watched that kettle as few kettles are watched, until the sugar would harden up if it was dropped on snow or put into cold water. When they got it hard enough to suit them they took it from the fire and commenced the cooling process. This consisted in stirring it awhile, and then letting it stand awhile, until it was gritty. Then continuous stirring until it was cold enough to take out of the pot was said to improve the color and the grain of the sugar. John's first effort proved to be a success. The two cakes of sugar were of the best quality, and the quantity was about double what he expected from the amount of syrup he put into the kettle.

Next day they sugared off two batches, and boiled all the sap on hand, so that they had everything in shape for another run of sap. They put away the remaining syrup till Monday, and put things in order for the next day, which was Sunday.

As John came in from doing the chores that Saturday night, he said to Mary, "For once in my life, at all events, I am tired."

"No wonder, John," she answered. "You have had a very hard week's work. Between working all day and all night, and going without sleep, I don't wonder that you are tired."

"Well, to be sure, Mary," said he, "we have had a hard week, but it has been a paying one. By the time we get all done off we must have over one hundred and fifty pounds of sugar."

"Yes, and then look at the quality of it. That is a great deal in my estimation; for with burnt or very dark sugar it is impossible to do good cooking. How mother would praise your sugar if she were here," Mary said.

"I am glad you think so, Mary," said John, "and I wish your mother was here to praise my sugar, for she can't well praise my work and not speak well of me. And I heard an old man once say, `Blessed is the man whose mother-in-law speaketh well of him.' And I should feel myself highly complimented to be well spoken of by a woman with as much good sense as Mrs. Myrtle," said John. "But, Mary, why don't you say our sugar? You did your share of the work, I am sure; and if there is any credit to be given, you must come in for a share."

"Well, you know, what is mine is yours," she said.

"That is all right enough; but it works both ways, like spelling the word madam—it amounts to the same thing whichever way you take it. What is mine is yours, as well as the reverse," John said.

"I am satisfied either way, so long as we have the thing between us," was her answer.

The Sabbath morning came in, bright and clear and beautiful, just the kind of a morning to fill the birds with music and brutes with gladness, and the heart of man with feelings of devotion.

The usual religious services were held, and among the few worshippers none were more joyful than John himself. The order of holding their meeting was entirely free from cast-iron rules or mere formality. Some of the men would give out a hymn, and after singing it, some one would lead in prayer. Then a chapter in the Bible would be read by one person sometimes, and in rotation at other times. Then any one who wished to do so might speak a few words by way of commenting on the lesson read, or in relation of religious experience, or by way of exhortation. There was no restraint and no compulsion in those humble Sabbath services in that humble Christian community. And yet, who ,would say that the want of stateliness or form would be any bar to the spirituality of worship, or to its acceptability to God, or the beneficial effects upon the worshippers.

When the services were over, and after a few words of friendly greetings, the little congregation dispersed, all of them realizing the truth of the prophetic statement, "That they who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength."

During the night the wind changed, and the weather became warmer. On Monday morning the sap started to run again. But the flow was not so rapid as the week before. John was able to keep up with the work that week without much trouble.

At breakfast he told Mary that he would go to the back line and invite the two families to come that afternoon and help to sugar off the rest of the syrup. They all accepted the invitation gladly, as they were not making anything more than some molasses that first spring in the bush.

John and Mary got everything in readiness for the afternoon's treat. Mary got a lot of clean snow to make taffy, and John made a number of wooden paddles to be used as spoons in eating sugar. Having no sap to boil that day, he did not kindle a fire till after dinner.

By the time the neighbors came he had the two large kettles over the fire, with a lot of syrup in each, as he had more than he cared to risk in one alone. He had the kettles boiling when the company, led by Mary, came to the camp.

"Coot tay, Meester Bushman. Dis ish werry kind of you to go vor us to gone and eat up your shoogar. Dat ish a vact."

"Never mind, Mr. Crautmaker," said Mary. "If we had not wanted you all to come we would not have asked you to do so. We will have one backwoods neighborly gathering around the sugar-pot this afternoon. So let us all feel at liberty to help ourselves, and help each other as much as we can. Sugar is plenty, and more coming, you see;" and pointing to a large tree near by, she said, "If any of you would like a drink of sweet water, there is plenty of it in those troughs around there."

The company made the time pass as pleasantly and rapidly as any company could be expected to do, until the syrup began to act like to sugar, by foaming up to the top of the kettles. John stood with his stirring-stick in hand in order to keep the sugar from running over. Mary, with a long-handled spoon, was dipping sugar out of the pot and pouring it on snow or in cold water to make taffy for those who wanted to try how much pulling apart their jaws could do when their teeth were fastened together with the sticky stuff.

"Look here, boys," said John, "just see how this boils up and acts as though it was trying to jump out of the kettles. Can any of you tell me why this is like an angry, scolding woman?"

"I don't know," said one and another, until it was evident that the answer was not likely to be given.

"Well," said John, "I will tell you why they are alike. Because in both cases it is foaming sweetness."

"Vell," said Mr. Crautmaker, " vedder it ish voaming sweetness or voaming sourness, de boilin' shoogar and de scholdin' vife makes von pig fuss zometime."

"There now, old man, don't you be tellin' tales out of the house," said Mrs. Crautmaker, as she threw a light snowball across the fire and hit the old man on the nose.

"There now, shust see that. Shiminy, but ish this not the best proofs in dis world dat vot I said apout de scholdin' vife makes a pig fuss is shust as true as anytings?" retorted the old man.

"Well, after all," said Richard Greenleaf, "it takes the old folks to get up the fun."

"Yes," said John Bushman, "my wife would have to try a half a dozen times before she could hit me on the nose like that."

"Well, well," said the old lady, "his nose is so big that you can't miss it if you throw in the direction he is in."

"I gives it up. My vife always has de best of de bargain ven we gits playin' off jokes on one annoder," said the old man.

By sundown the sugar was all done and in the moulds. The visitors were all gone, and John and Mary were quietly taking their suppers, after the most sociable day that had ever been spent among their neighbors.

The night after the sugaring-off party John found a pair of lambs in the pen among the sheep. Here was an additional care for him. But, as he said to Mary, it was a profitable care. Nothing about a farm will give larger or quicker returns than sheep when they are properly looked after.

John's flock doubled itself the first year. To be sure, it took considerable care and attention to keep them in safety from the foxes and wolves.

Sugar-making was progressing nicely with the Bushmans. At the end of the third week they had over three hundred pounds of good sugar.

"Now," said John, "we will make a good lot of molasses, and then some vinegar."

John had bought a barrel for vinegar and a large keg for molasses the last time he was at Mapleton to mill, so that he could put away the year's supply of both.

The next run of sap supplied the material for the molasses and vinegar. After this was all disposed of the sap ran still.

John said to Mary, "I can't spend any more time with it. My spring's work is at hand, and between doing that and making preparation to build a barn I have a big lot of work before me for the summer. I think I will go and tell those people on the back line that they may have the bush now if they like to take it. They might make some good sugar yet. The buds are not started enough to spoil the sap for it."

"That would be a great deal better than letting the sap waste," Mary answered.

"I will go right away and let them know," said he; and he did.

They were glad to have the chance. They agreed that each family should do half the work and share equally in whatever was made. They made some very good sugar, besides filling a vinegar barrel that the Crautmakers had brought with them to the bush. This is only another instance of the kindly feelings that new country neighbors have for each other.

One evening, as John and Mary were sitting at the supper table, a rap came on the door, and before they had time to go and invite the person in, Moses Moosewood opened the door and walked in.

"Home once more," said Mose, as he gave one hand to John and one to Mary, "and I am glad of it, I assure you.

"We did not expect you just yet, Mose, but we are glad to see you; for, to tell the truth, we were beginning to think the time long for your return," John answered.

"You did not think it longer than I did myself, for I got as homesick as I could be," said Mose.

"I know what was the matter with you, Mose," put in Mary. "There was no girl out there whose name begins with Katrina."

"Now, Mary, that is not fair. What do I know about your Katrina? I never spoke a dozen words to her in my life," said Mose.

"That is no reason why you may not speak a good many words to her in the future. But we will let all that pass now," she said; "and come now and get some supper."

"Without much coaxing I will do that, for I am hungry as I can well be," said Mose.

"How are all the folks out on the front?" John inquired.

"All well and hearty. Your folks are busy preparing for the wedding, which is to come off one week from to-day."

"Why did you not wait for it?" asked Mary.

"I would like to be there, and Will tried hard to keep me. But it will be three weeks yet before they will be ready to move, and I wanted to be here as soon as I could, to get in some grain and prepare for house-building."


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