February 27, 2015

I’m a sap for hobbies

I once read that “collecting” is the most common hobby among Americans. I can buy that, because I collect. Hobbies that is.

I love hobbies. They give me a needed break from the everyday world, allow me to focus both my mind and pocketbook on the trivial and provide for me a unique sense of identity.

But as much as I love hobbies, I have a devil of a time keeping them. My passion for a hobby can be so blinding that it no longer becomes a break from the everyday world, it become my everyday world.

I have, in turns,

· Tended a massive garden

· Captained (and mostly repaired) a wooden boat

· Carved duck decoys

· Tied flies

· Hunted deer, ducks and rabbits

· Trained a dog who hunted as poorly as I did

· Scoured the countryside for letterboxes

· Made fine things (mostly sawdust) in a woodshop

· Photographed wildlife and wildly cute grandkids

· And a couple others I’ve already forgotten

Each of these was MY hobby. While a recreational pursuit is in my focus, I have little doubt that it is the money-sucking avocation to rival my money-generating vocation. I’m at heart a tightwad, but I’ve never had hesitation laying out the bucks for a rototiller, a table saw, a huge camera lens or a 24-foot wooden boat that was probably better suited for fish habitat.

And each was a bargain. I’m quite certain that every dime you spend on a hobby extends your life a day or two. If you work in a stressful job, as I always have, the chance to perform a mindless-but-enjoyable task to please no boss but yourself is respite with a capital “R.”

Which brings me to my latest passion – with a capital “M.” I make sweet and sticky maple syrup.

A few years ago, when Gillian lived in Vermont, she sent to me a small set of “spiles.” A spile is the spigot that you hammer into a maple tree with the expectation that the precursor to pancake heaven will trickle into your bucket. When I visited her that summer, I couldn’t help but buy a whole selection of big, little, plastic and metal spiles from the real Vermonter (plaid shirt, abbreviated vocabulary) at the country hardware store.

Making syrup is not unlike watching comets. Before the big moment, you crave (and buy) every bit of equipment made . You check your calendar again and again. You wait. And wait.

Then you spend the briefest of times scrambling like hell and loving every minute.

For most of the year, maple trees are pretty much like oaks and elms. They stand tall, provide good shade and cover your yard with leaves each fall.

But for a few weeks in February and March, they go a bit crazy. When the nights are below freezing but the days are warmer, they trees start shuttling sap from root to stem and back so frenetically that they overload. The sap tries its best to pop out from under the back, much to the joy of ants, bird and guys with earflaps on their hats.

We usually think of Vermont or Canada as the only sources of maple syrup, but at one time maples were tapped all over the East and the Midwest. There was good Yankee logic in it. Before the Civil War, white sugar was expensive stuff that came from Cuba and other exotic climes. The Native Americans, however, showed us how to get that sap out of maple trees and boil it down to syrup and eventually a honey-brown sugar. We were so thankful that we stole all their land and gave them smallpox.

The pioneers now buy C&H and most regular folk douse their pancakes with thick corn syrup infused with a hint of artificial maple flavor. But there are saps like me all over the “sugarbush” who brave the cold and spend enough money to by an International House of Pancakes lifetime pass to make a few ounces of pure joy.

I started with three trees and now tap seven – with my eye on another down the hill. I tramp down our hill with a five-gallon bucket, empty the various pails and jugs slung from my tries, then hump the sloshing load back up the hill.

When I get five to 10 gallons of sap, I get to use the toy that occupied me through the warmer months. I built and continually tinker with a wood-fired evaporator. It’s really a pile of concrete blocks topped with a turkey roaster, but it’s what makes mapling a perfect guy hobby. I get to sit around all Saturday poking sticks in the fire while watching 5 gallons of sap boil down to 8-12 ounces of syrup.

And I get to wear a red wool hat with earflaps! Maybe this is it – the hobby to end all hobbies.

Not a chance.