Phrenology is the study of bumps on a person’s skull to determine certain aspects of the individual’s personality and character.
Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.
The end of sugaring tends to come at about the same time amphibians thaw out and get active, so some sugar-makers call their final batches of syrup “frog water.” Appropriately, a small chorus of wood frogs was sounding off in the puddles as the fire was lit for an April Fools’ Day boil at Bobo’s last Friday afternoon.
Perhaps searching for something more substantial than a puddle, this frog wandered into a corner, where we discovered the shortcomings of auto focus in low light.
Rain spattered the metal roof and the back pan rumbled over the fire.
It turns out that frogs were not the only wandering amphibians that night, as a salamander was spotted, crossing the concrete floor. The salamander, of course, was spotted long before it crossed the concrete floor; we just didn’t see it until then.
A few minutes later, another one waddled past, headed in the same direction, and after that another salamander wandered in from the woodshed on one side of the building and out the open door opposite. In some places, the migrations of frogs and salamanders are accommodated by tunnels or, in some cases, crossing guards. We just watched where we were walking.
It takes a hot fire to boil down sap to syrup and also to cook in the rain.
The flow of sap slows as the season winds down but the reduction of production is not the only sign that sugaring is over for the year. In fact, it may be one of the last.
The composition of the sap changes as the season progresses and the trees get closer to their bloom time. What once roiled smoothly through the pans turns to hot foam, a bubbling, caramel-colored menace.
With so much liquid bound up as the surface of bubbles, that channel is essentially dry. There is no flow and the pan can scorch, not only making a hard-to-clean mess but also creating the conditions for a ferocious sugar fire. Thermometers don’t measure well in all that foam and though the temperature reads well below 219°F (103.8°C) the stuff bubbles furiously as it is drawn off.
When checked for specific gravity it comes up light, but it runs in thick sheets off the ladle. Everything says it is syrup except the scientific instruments used to check it so sugar-makers in springtime rely on an instrument of a different sort, known as their “gut.”
Some guts suggest shutting things down when the sap becomes hard to manage like that. Some guts point to sticking it out and using their senses to boil until there is just no point any more. Whether or not there will be any more remains to be seen but for all its wild and funky qualities over the fire, this batch of syrup turned out to be both different and delicious.
A little excitement now and then is a good thing. The march of the salamanders was fun and scrambling to cool down the pan with quick pours of sap from the Oh Sh*t! bucket kept everyone on their toes but, after a certain point, it was just another late night in a sugarhouse.
A good guess can be made, but there’s no real sure way to tell when sugaring is about to end. For some, it’s over when they say it’s over, when they’ve had quite enough and before things get out of hand. Others keep plugging away until the wood runs out or the pan catches fire. Either way, it’s not really us who have the final say. When the buds are swelling, the frogs are trilling and salamanders are on the move, you know the end is drawing near.
And if you can’t figure it out on your own from all that, the trees will let you know.
An accumulation of degree days, the angle of the sun and who knows what else, spurred the frogs and salamanders to action the other day but this is Vermont — where it is sometimes said we don’t have spring — and all I can say is that it’s pretty quiet in the swamp today.
Opening Day is 26 days away…