Hank Hughes, 82, is wreathed in a sweet-smelling cloud of steam as he dips, pours, measures, then drains off and adds sap to a roaring evaporator.
We step outside the billowing sugar shack on the dairy farm in Flat Rock, Michigan where he’s lived his entire life. He points down the road to the house he was born in, sweeping his arm past the houses of his and his wife Ilene’s children and grandchildren nearby. Holy Family Catholic Church is over there on the hill. Across a field of corn stubble lies the maple woods his family has tapped for as long as he can remember.
Now, among those maples the staccato pinging of sap splashing into pails is accompanied by the chug of a diesel tractor, the clank of silver pails and the voices of the Hughes’ grandchildren as they race against darkness to collect from the 2,400 tapped trees. It’s a Thursday evening and they just got home from work and school, but the sap doesn’t wait for anybody’s schedule. Cell phones ring and ATVs whine as cousins come and go, lending a hand for as long as they can.
When Hank was their age the sounds were of draft horses huffing as they pulled a sleigh of barrels through the spring snow, and a crackling wood fire under the evaporator. But there has always been the ringing of sap-on-tin, a sound that fixes these laborers to this place and this time with roots that would even make the maples jealous.
The last pail is emptied just as twilight rolls across the fields. The last tractor emerges from the darkening woods, a farm dog nipping at the tires in a game only it knows the rules to.
Opening the door to the shack, warm light and steam roll out to reveal a crowd gathered for the night’s work. Sons, cousins, brothers, sisters, great-grandkids, grandparents—they’re all here and ready to work. A big pot of chili has appeared along with a moist maple syrup cake.
Bottles and cans, caps and seals are all brought out of storage from last season and then the finishing begins. Small batches are brought to the perfect consistency and filtered, then bottled one-by-one and handed down an assembly line--son, to brother, to nephew to mother. Friends and neighbors stop by and samples of fresh, hot syrup are sipped out of small cups.
Hank and Ilene sit near each other at the center of the hubbub. This is the first day of the season, but by the end of spring the family will have produced between 300 and 400 gallons of syrup.
Not to mention a few more memories.