Layering, peeling for onion weather

Onion weather — it’s a term that I haven’t heard all that often here in West Virginia. I picked it up in New England where a typical sentence using this term might go like the following: “It appeahs to be onion weathah, Haahvey.”

But it has nothing to do with growing onions — instead, it refers to the manner in which one must dress when days begin with temperatures in the teens and eventually reach the 50s or even the 60s by afternoon. Those who spend the entire day working outdoors dress so that they can peel away layers as the day progresses — similar to how an onion peels away in layers making onion rings possible.

Coats and sweaters accidentally get left in stores, restaurants, automobiles, school buses, in the woods and so forth. Most of these garments seem to find their way back to their original owners through the local misplaced garment exchange network, a department of the local hand-me-down clothing clearing houses. Some items do fall through the cracks and get assimilated into other homes leading to some awkward moments during the following fall and winter months.

I guess that I can’t make reference to late winter in New England without addressing the subject of maple sugaring. Indeed, a sugarhouse built of rough-sawn lumber or logs in a woodland setting makes for a welcome sight year-round. In late winter, though, the billows of steam and wood smoke make it all the more warm and inviting — especially at night as the chill air moves in and we walk on a crust of frozen mud. The coats and sweaters go back on if we can find them.

While the sugarhouses may have retained some of the romance of the past, I’m afraid that the same generally doesn’t hold true of the sap gathering process. While I think that I can remember seeing the old-fashioned metal buckets hanging from their taps or “spills,” these have largely been replaced by plastic tubing that pipes the sap right to the sugar house. Gone are the days of the ox-drawn sledge or “farm punt” (in either case, basically a sled).

There may be isolated farms that still use the old bucket method of collecting sap. These, however, seem to be limited to places that demonstrate farming of an earlier time.

Though a clear violation of rustic decorum, hobbyists often prefer to gather sap in plastic milk jugs so that they may, while busy with the duties of modern life, determine the amount of sap production at a glance through these semi-transparent containers.

We did the hobby sugaring thing on a couple of occasions — once in Connecticut and once in Iowa where we tapped box alder trees, a close cousin to the sugar maple. I don’t recall exactly how many trees we tapped. We did learn, though, that even if you only tap one or two trees, you will probably find yourself adjusting your schedule. Once a sap run begins, those containers can fill up remarkably fast and there’s no way to slow it down. You’ll need to get cooking right away since sap doesn’t store well — especially if the bugs attracted to its subtle sweetness drown and collect in the bottom.

In a commercial sugarhouse, the temperatures and consistency of the sap in the various pans are precisely regulated. However, since we’re not answering to the buying public or the Maple Sugar Society, the hobbyist’s efforts can be much less formal. Simply put the sap in a big pot and boil the water away — like moonshining in reverse. If you try this indoors, — say, in a crockpot, any paint, wall paper or drywall finishing in the room will take a real beating from the steam.

It’s better to cook the sap outside over a wood fire — the subtle taste of wood smoke and the little pieces of wood ash add authenticity. About halfway through the process, when the sap hasn’t quite begun to reach a syrupy consistency, we like to ladle up a couple of demitasse cups of hot sap. That’s one lovely cup o’ tea.

We still haven’t tried sugaring in West Virginia — we must have just gotten too darn busy, I guess — it certainly isn’t for lack of trees. Apparently this was once serious maple sugar country. Looking around, I have noticed — even in my own yard and those of my neighbors, that huge old maples were planted in rows or otherwise strategically. Nothing else could explain such symmetry.

I don’t have much information on the history of maple sugaring locally. It would appear that it was largely done as just another seasonal farm activity though I have found evidence of what may have been a commercial or at least a community sugar bush. About 30 years ago local sawmillers Robert and Riley Baker moved their mill into a stand of maples on Sandy Ridge in Hampshire County.

The public road (Castle Road) leading back to the place ended at a gate after which they had to reopen a considerable distance of abandoned road to reach the site.

They were giving away the sawmill waste, or slab wood, and a steady stream of locals loaded up and hauled away this free firewood. This kept the sawmill area from being crowded by the waste and saved the Bakers the time and expense of pushing the slabs out of the way with their bulldozer — it also provided them a measure of entertainment. It seemed as though no one could complete the chore of driving to the mill, loading the slabs and hauling them away without some sort of mishap — one truck even turned over onto its side on a sharp turn.

The wood, which was almost all maple, showed evidence of numerous past borings for maple sugar spiles. Some of these borings were larger than would be needed to accommodate the commercially produced metal spiles as one might have encountered over the last century or so. This would indicate that the earliest type of spile had been in use there.

Wood of the sumac tree has a soft pith at its center which is easily bored or even pushed out producing a hollow wooden pipe. These sumac spiles were inserted into the bored hole to direct the sap into a bucket.

Warm days and cold nights bring the sap out into the buckets until the tree redirects the flow to its newly sprouting foliage and another maple sugaring season will be done. “Onion weather,” though, might continue for another week or so. May your coats and sweaters all find their way home.

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