By Greg Clark, March 22, 1941
“Men from the country,” asserted Jimmie Frise, “make better soldiers than city men.”
“As a city man.” I replied, “it is my duty to deny that. And I think it ought to be self-evident. This is a war of machines. Machine-guns, tanks, airplanes. It is a city man’s war.”
“The average farmer,” declared Jimmie, “knows at least 10 times as much about machines as the average city man. A city man lives amongst machines. But he doesn’t know anything about them. The most he knows about them is to push a button. He pushes a button and an elevator comes and carries him upstairs. He stands at a white post, and a car stops and picks him up. He puts a nickel in a slot and something comes out. A city man is served, hand and foot, by machines. But it is all buttons to push and switches to turn and white posts to stand at.”
“Why, Jim, that’s ridiculous …” I protested.
“If a city man’s car starts to act up,” went on Jim, “he runs it into the first garage. He wouldn’t dream of trying to fix it himself. If his radio goes bad, he yells for a repair man. There is nothing so comic in the world as a city man whose telephone is out of order. He is rendered absolutely helpless.”
“So,” I said bitterly, “after living all these years in the city, you turn and bite the hand that feeds you!”
“A farmer,” continued Jim imperturbably, “knows 10 times as much about machines as a city man. He lives by machines. He can take his tractor or his car apart and put it together again. His daily job has to do with engines, churns, chopping mills. He understands and can fix pumps, harness, tools and implements, all of which come under the heading of machines. His electric light, telephone and all the things which to us city men are mysteries beyond our ken, he can mend because he understands them. This is the machine age. But the city man is its only victim.”
“How do you mean victim?” I demanded hotly.
“Because,” said Jim, “the city man has sold out to the machines. He has left himself no retreat. If our power were shut off for a week, we would be thrown into complete confusion. All our work would stop. We would live in darkness. We couldn’t cook; our oil furnaces would go out; we would huddle like cavemen freezing to death. But the farmer would carry on his life much as usual. Without lights, he’d just go to bed earlier. Without coal, he’d use wood or straw.”
Magic Hour in the Country
“Our gas engines and cars and trucks would save us,” I countered.
“Purely temporary,” said Jim. “Without power, without machines, we would be helpless. Our telephones wouldn’t work, our radio would be shut off, there would be no movies. Why, we poor city folk would find life hardly worth living. But the farmer has not sold out to the machine. His machines are still his servants, not his lords. We may have saved a little money. But the farmer has saved hay. He plants his grain and feeds his stock. His hens go right on laying, his hogs go right on growing.”
“Yah,” I cried, “but he has to have the cities for his market.”
“If he wants a market,” agreed Jim. “But suppose he merely wants to live? He has got all the means wherewith to live right in his own hand. He has his food. His fires he feeds with wood from his own woodlot. He has lamps, and if the oil gives out, he can still remember how to make tallow candles. If all the highways are bombed so that no traffic can move, the farmer lives in perfect comfort and security, while the cities slowly starve and go mad.”
“That’s an awful picture, Jim.” I accused.
“No,” said Jimmie, “I was just pointing out that we should not put too much reliance on machines and we should not permit ourselves to be carried away with our pride in them. A farmer’s land will stand by him long after the machines have let the cities go to hell.”
“You said men from the country make better soldiers than city men,” I accused.
“I’m inclined to think they do,” repeated Jim, “and we mustn’t forget that among city men are tens of thousands of men from the country who have come into the cities. Whereas, among the men from the country are mighty few who have come from the cities.”
“You’ certainly have a one-way mind,” I snorted.
“I was just thinking,” said Jim, “of all the boys from the farm who are in the army now, in Britain and Iceland and Gibraltar and all over the world. And how they are feeling just about now. With March nearly over and April on the rim.”
“I guess city boys are feeling the same,” I asserted.
“No,” corrected Jim, “to city men March and April are just the dead end of the year; a memory of rain and mud and slush and dreariness, with all the clothes shabby before the spring clothes come out, and all the cars dirty and the streets gray and slimy. But to a country boy, this is the magic hour. The calves and the lambs are coming. The stock are being let out into the fields. The hens are starting to lay and the sap’s runnin’.”
“Of course,” I cried. “The sugar bush.”
When Spring Exults
“The last log is being hauled out of the woodlot,” sang Jimmie, “and the last cordwood being drawn. The meadowlarks and the song sparrows are in every field and the crows are making marriage in the bush.”
“And spouts are being hammered into all the maples in the sugar bush,” I reminded.
“All over the world today,” said Jimmie, “the soldiers from the farms are exiles indeed. This is the time of year when the farmer feels his own sap rising; when he looks out to see where he left the hay rake last fall; in what corner of what field did he drop the plow. You will see him plodding over the fields, planning his crops. At this very hour spring exults on the farms.”
“Jim,” I interjected, “maple syrup and maple sugar. Let’s stop and think about them. To me, there is no flavor in the world so inspiring as the flavor of genuine maple syrup boiled in the bush.”
“And you got mighty little of it,” stated Jim. “Mostly you get ordinary cane syrup flavored with an artificial maple essence made from maple bark and sap wood. There are thriving factories in this world devoted entirely to the making of artificial maple flavor. And I’ve even heard of imitating the flavor with potato peelings and brown sugar. There was a farmer’s wife who could make it that way and even her husband couldn’t tell it from the real thing.”
“No,” I said aghast. “There ought to be a law against it. That’s a crime against the state. The maple leaf is Canada’s emblem.”
“All I say is,” said Jim. “if you want maple syrup, go out in the country and buy it from the farmer.”
“Why,” I cried scandalized, “the government ought to forbid the manufacture or import of maple flavoring. It’s unpatriotic. It’s subversive.”
“I agree with you,” said Jim. “But there are plenty of politicians who wouldn’t. If there are dollars in anything artificial, then that thing is here to stay. That’s a sort of general rule we can bear in mind.”
“We ought to start a battle,” I declared
“Listen,” said Jim. “I bet that half the maple syrup you have gloated over was fake. And I also bet that there are tens of thousands of people who have never yet tasted genuine maple syrup, made and sealed in the bush.”
“And it is one of the unforgettable flavors of this world,” I sighed. “Which we owe to the Indian.”
“The Indians,” enunciated Jim, “had no kettles big enough to boil the sap. They used to get their sugar by freezing.”
“How?” I inquired.
“They collected the sap,” explained Jim, “in bark pails. They had to collect it real early in March, at the very start of the run, so as to take advantage of what frost remained. They set the pails of sap out to freeze. Then they skimmed off the ice and threw it away, By alternately freezing, and thawing, they reduced the sap to a kind of sugar. When the white man came, he introduced big kettles.”
“Does it take much sap to render down to syrup?” I inquired.
“It all depends,” said Jim. “Some sap is richer than others. But as a rule, it takes about 30 to 35 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.”
“Holy Moses,” I said. “And how much sap does one tree give?”
“Well,” said Jim. “that, too, is a problem. If you get a good tree with a big top, and it is situated near a cold spring, and it is a real hard sugar maple, you would get an average of two gallons of sap in 24 hours.”
“So 15 trees would give you a gallon of syrup a day,” I suggested.
“Plus a lot of hard work,” smiled Jim. “driving a sleigh around the sugar bush collecting the sap from the buckets and taking care of it so it doesn’t sour.”
“Isn’t the sap sweet?” I demanded.
“Yes, but if it is neglected, or gets warm, it sours,” said Jim. “You can get sap from any kind of maple, and they all make syrup and sugar. But the best trees are the sugar maple. And they run good for only about three weeks. Sometimes the run starts early in March, sometimes later. Sometimes the run will go great for four weeks and sometimes only for two. It’s tricky, like everything else around a farm. But if you want to go for a drive in the country one of these days, we can pick up a few gallons of the real McKay.”
But I was looking speculatively out the window. For there in Jim’s back yard were three thriving maple trees. And out in front were two more. And in the neighbors’ yards I could see half a dozen other fine maples. And I was calculating just how many there were in and around my own front and back yard.
“Jim,” I said, “did it ever occur to you how many maple trees there are in Canada? How many billions? Did it ever occur to you that if we Canadians went at the problem in a business-like way, we could take possession of the sugar market of the world?”
“Don’t suggest anything business-like in connection with maple syrup,” said Jimmie, “or you lose the wild, smoky tang that distinguishes the real thing.”
“Do you realize,” I demanded that there are 15 maple trees within sight of where we sit? Do you realize that those 15 trees would give us enough sap, at two gallons per tree per day, to make a gallon of maple syrup right in our own kitchen?”
“Hm,” said Jim reflectively.
An Exciting Experiment
So we went out and made a survey of the situation and found five trees on our own premises, seven more on the premises of what might be called friendly neighbors, and another 12 in the immediate vicinity which might be brought into the scheme if we approached the owners in the proper fashion.
It was a matter of less than an hour to round up, in our own cellars, enough empty pails, lard tins and other receptacles suitable to collecting the sap. From the stationery shop we got half a dozen pea shooters of tin which would make, Jim thought, ideal sap spouts to drive into the trees. A chisel for making the notch in the bark and a brace and bit for making the little holes into which to stick the spouts was, with a handful of nails, all that a couple of maple enthusiasts required.
We agreed to tap only Jim’s trees to start with. From them we figured on collecting about 10 gallons of sap which would give us a boiling down of better than a quart of syrup, which, as Jimmie explained, would indicate whether the experiment was worthy of larger development.
“We may,” pointed out Jim, “get the whole city making maple syrup.”
So, with daylight saving to help us, we tapped our five trees, on the front lawn and in the yard, and found no trouble inserting the spouts and suspending the pails on nails. The colorless, water-like sap began to run almost instantly. First a dribble and then a trickle rewarded our gaze as each tree was notched and spouted. And when darkness fell, there was already a nice wetness covering the bottom of each pail.
The next morning being Saturday, we telephoned the office that we had important work to do; which was fortunate, because with all the children of the district home from school, we had to keep a sharp eye on our pails of sweet sap. Overnight, some of the smaller pails had actually filled and overflowed. It is astonishing how maple sap flows. With the day, the sap flow increased. In a big preserving kettle down in Jim’s cellar, on the laundry gas stove, we collected the sap from the pails.
“We should be boiling by 6 o’clock tonight, at this rate,” said Jim, looking at the good six inches of sap already in the kettle.
The children of the neighborhood took a most lively interest in the enterprise, and Jim and I both took time, seeing there was nothing else to do, to instruct these ignorant little city children in the mysteries of maple sugar making.
“To celebrate our first boiling,” suggested Jim. “we might invite all these kids in to watch and let them sit around the kettle and dip sticks in the syrup, the way they do in the country at a sugaring-off. They dip switches in and then cool the syrup in the snow and it turns to candy.”
“It might be nice,” I agreed, “because after all, this is a patriotic enterprise and the kids ought to be in it.”
The First – and Last – Boiling
So we got quite friendly with the children clustered around and I allowed some of them to taste the sap, even though it was precious. I had tasted it. It had a sweetish, queer flavor. Rather nice. I tasted quite a lot of it. I got a spoon and dipped some out for each youngster. They all had two or three helpings of the sap. I had about 10 or 15. And then an old lady passing by spoiled the fun.
“Mercy sakes,” she said, “you are not giving those children that maple sap!”
“It won’t hurt them,” I reassured her.
“Won’t hurt them?” she cried. “It’ll give them the worst gripes they ever had. My goodness, don’t let them have any more.”
“My dear lady,” I said, “I bet I’ve had a pint of it.”
“Well,” she laughed, “if you have, you’ll soon know it. Why, when I was a girl back on the farm the best joke in the world was to invite your town cousins out and give them sap to drink and then…”
But at that instant I felt the first gripes. It was just as the lady said.
I had to leave the experiment to Jimmie. He had drunk only a little of the sap and was more or less able to carry on. I came and went, as the gripes came and went. I was feeling some better along about 6 o’clock, when Jimmie announced the first boiling to be ready.
Unquestionably, as we boiled, there was a delicious maple aroma in that cellar laundry. Unquestionably, the sap slowly boiled to a darker and darker shade. Unquestionably the slowly forming syrup, as the hours went by, did taste like maple syrup. But also unquestionably it seemed to taste of other things, such as a faint suspicion of gasoline, and a faint tinge of lubricating oil and other things which undoubtedly seep down into the soil from which city trees draw their sustenance.
It may have been the sap I had drunk earlier in the day that threw me off my taste, but by the time the syrup had begun to take on the consistency of syrup, I had no taste for it at all; and I was ready to go out into the fresh air and breathe the cold. What we had left at the end of the boiling both Jimmie and I agreed to pour out in a quiet corner of Jimmie’s garden. Altogether, it was a failure as an experiment. And a lot of work and trouble.
But the worst feature of the experiment was that all day all the mothers in the neighborhood telephoned in high, sharp voices to ask what on earth we had been giving their children to drink?
Editor’s Notes: This story gives a good description of making maple syrup. I suspect that at the time of writing, it was more common to encounter artificial syrup in Canada, but this in no longer the case. To anyone in the right climate, making maple syrup by hobbyists is not uncommon, so long as you have enough trees to work with, and preferably do the boiling outside. One shouldn’t let Greg and Jim’s failed experiment discourage you.
Jim uses the phrase “the real McKay“. This is from an advertising slogan of the MacKay whisky distillery: “A drappie o’ the real MacKay”. This would eventually transform to “the real McCoy“, to indicate something was “the real thing” or “the genuine article”.