March 2013, Hudson River Valley, New York

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A shallow creek cuts through the sugar maple grove. There’s an old bridge made of stacked stones that has stood up to the flowing water for a hundred years. A carpet of last summer’s leaves crunches underfoot. Clouds of steam twirl up from stainless steel trays sitting on a rusty steel box packed with furiously burning logs. A stove pipe protrudes like a drinking straw from one side and jets out exhaust hot enough to ignite twigs. Smoke spilling from the fire box stings the eyes.

A dozen maple trees bleed clear, watery sap into a steel drum via a network of thin flexible hoses about the thickness of surgical tubing. Although the late winter sun blazes in a cloudless sky, the temperature’s still cold enough to freeze a plate of ice on the surface of the sugary liquid in the drum. The leafless trees look dormant, but revived by the signals of impending spring they pump sap copiously. In a sample drilling, the maple spurts fluid over the helical edges of the drill bit cutting into its vascular tissue and then maintains a relentless drip-drip-drip. In the past two weeks, the trees’ combined output filled two 55-gallon drums.

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