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Savor the serendipity of making syrup

Bleak in a frigid winter sky, the full moon of February grimly illuminates the low point of the year. To the Indians, the February moon was the hunger moon. Bellies that fed well in other months fasted until the sun began to climb March Hill and the first returning scarlet tanager brought again the Great Spirit's promise of plenty. Have you ever looked up one February morning, my friend, to see in yonder pine the enormous red of the bull tanager that poses spectacularly against the greenest green to prove there will be summer once more?

Here in our part of Maine, we don't see too much of the tanager, for he romances beyond us in the summer and keeps well south of us in cold weather. In passing, he limits us to a glimpse of scarlet as he romps to and fro. You must be alert indeed if you see him poised in a pine to prove the difference 'tween green and red.

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In the spring, he is always with the snow fleas. That is always a good week before you'll hear a cock pa'tridge thumping in the puckerbrush. Snow fleas are to be found on a snowbank exposed to the south, and only in the warmth of early spring.

Some folks insist the cock pa'tridge is mythical, too, and say he's just a fantasy cooked up by the length of a dreary down-Maine winter. I've seen a tanager and snow fleas, and heard a grouse drumming all on the same beautiful spring day. It would be about the time to tap the sugar maples.

Usually it was on the very day I went to the woods to begin that sweet chore, just after the wane of the hunger moon. The right portents of spring cause a certain flea to emerge, and coming forth in a swarm, they hover down on the melting snow, turning the white to black by their numbers. They find brief comfort in the moisture of the sun-struck snow drift.

The cock pa'tridge, a male ruffed grouse, sits vigil while his spouse is on her nest. From time to time as he meditates in vacuity, he rouses, bangs his wings against his being, and makes a drumming noise that sounds like somebody starting a small engine on a distant lawn mower. It is spring.

Our maple-syrup operation was small but served the purpose adequately. We had a sugar-house with evaporator, and beside it an open shed for firewood. We had a camp with some bunk beds and a cookstove for lunches and "finishing off."

In sugar-time, we moved there for the duration, for if blessed with cold nights and warm days, sugaring calls for all-night attention. Following the hunger moon, we had many the sweet sugar-time family night at the maple camp. We'd rouse to bake hot breakfast biscuits with new syrup, and we'd look for the first snow fleas, the first scarlet tanager, and the first bull pa'tridge beating his wings.

Now and then we'd wake to find a couple of inches of new snow, which would melt as the sun climbed. It boded nothing because the hunger moon was behind us. Everything up ahead was summertime.

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I will certainly not suggest that everybody acquire a sugar bush to enjoy the pleasures our family got from sugaring. Making maple syrup is hard work. The sugar content of maple sap varies from tree to tree, but at its sweetest it takes some 30 gallons of it to yield one gallon of properly proportioned maple syrup.

There are quicker and easier ways to make a dime. If you go for labor-saving pipelines and a more efficient evaporator, you soon have an investment that lessens the profit.

You need to cut firewood enough to stoke your evaporating arch. The wood needs time to dry, fitted, under cover. If you make a quantity of syrup, you'll need containers and a market. Get labels printed. And plan to spend a considerable part of each springtime off by yourself with the snow fleas and the pa'tridges. You may not be of a mind to feel that a scarlet tanager is worth it all, as I do.

Don't misread me, please. I accuse not. I merely assert that when you make your own syrup, you get snow fleas and tanagers and cock pa'tridges to boot. You get the real stuff for breakfast. I leave you to judge their values. A tanager in a pine tree must be worth something.

One spring in the wane of the hunger moon, we had everything going and my daughter and I were sitting on the sugar-house steps. We were waiting for a tanager to look at and the evaporator to peak, and we saw a gray squirrel come down the first maple tree to our left. He was upside down in descent, and he came warily a bit at a time. He was in no hurry. He was looking things over. He'd come down a few inches and then gaze about.

It took him several minutes to come from the tree's under limb to the tree's three buckets hanging on spiles. It seemed to us, he was astonished to see the pails. He moved over to the middle spile so his snout was even with the hole in the tree.

He took a taste. He seemed pleased and tweaked his tail a few times and made enthusiastic comment. Then he drank from the little stream of maple sap as it flowed forth to drip into the bucket.

My daughter said, "Jeekers, Daddy, how does he drink upside down?"

He did, and we saw him do it.

• For how to make maple syrup, go to: www.csmonitor.com/maplesyrup