Making Maple Syrup (Or: Unsolicited Parenting Advice)

When I was little, my family lived out in the middle of the woods. We were surrounded by trees. We built forts around them, played in the tiny stream that ran among them, and hid behind their trunks. It was an amazing place to be a kid.

But my dad loved them for a different reason.

They were maple trees.

And every year, just as late winter was turning into early spring, he’d go out with his old crank drill, a hammer, a pocket full of metal taps, and two dozen empty milk jugs and walk around the woods tapping the maple trees.

A small child, dressed in an orange winter coat, hammers a metal maple tap into a large maple tree
Securing a metal tap to a maple tree

Tapping is a simple process. It involves drilling a hole into the trunk of the tree, securing a metal tap, or spile, into the tree, and hanging a jug to collect the dripping sap. Side note: the thunk… thunk… thunk… of sap hitting the bottom of the plastic jug is an oddly satisfying noise.

Every day we’d walk the same path to collect the sap, pouring the sap from the milk jugs into an old camping water container, and lug the collected sap back to the house.

We had a wood stove in the family room where he’d boil down the sap, eventually ending up with jars of sweet, sticky, delicious maple syrup.

I live in a city now. It’s a totally different environment than that of my childhood. There are many more people around us, and we lack the privacy the woods offered. My kids are experiencing a different sort of amazing place to be a kid.

But I do have five trees on my property. Four of them are maples.

And so I’ve been introducing my family to the art of making maple syrup.

Our homemade maple sap evaporator in the yard, built out of cinder blocks.
Boiling off so much excess water

We don’t have a wood stove in the house, so we’ve rigged up a wood-fired evaporator built out of cinder blocks out in the yard.

And every weekend or so, we spend several hours tending the fire, boiling off gallon after gallon of sap.

For those of you unfamiliar with the process raw maple sap is just barely sweet. So to make syrup, you have to boil off a lot of water in order to condense the sweetness.

Like, a lot of water.

It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.

It’s a slow process of getting rid of the excess to make something so beautifully sweet.

Kind of like parenthood.

I know, right? BIG leap. But bear with me.

When you’re expecting or have a new baby, people come out of nowhere to offer up advice - friends, family members, acquaintances, random people on the street, anyone who has ever had or knowns someone who has had a baby comes out to tell you all about pregnancy, birth, and parenting.

And I’d tell you that the unsolicited advice ends when your baby reaches a certain age, but that’d be a big lie.

You will be the recipient of so much advice. Gallons of advice, some might say.

You get the joy (or the responsibility) of sorting through it, deciding what to keep and what to toss.

It’s not that it’s necessarily bad advice, just like the water in the raw sap isn’t bad. (Well, okay, sometimes it IS bad advice - but that’s a topic for a different day.) It’s just not needed. It’s not helping you create something beautiful.

And it’s ok to let go of it. You don’t have to be angry at it. You don’t have to resent its existence or the existence of the person who offered it up.

You just have to let it go.

Sorting through and getting rid of the excess can be a process. It can take time. It can take energy.

But the result is something sweet. Something you’ve created. You’ve done the work to make your parenthood experience what it is.

So light those fires. Put on your winter boots. Pull up a chair. We’ve got some work to do.

Three jars of maple syrup sit in the sunlight. Differences in color are noticeable, from light, to golden, to amber.
The resulting sweetness