DIY Maple Syrup

In 1860 the United States produced more than six and a half million gallons of maple syrup. In 2019 only about one and a half million gallons were harvested. What’s wrong, Americans?

My husband “sugars off” the sap alone at our house after the one year he slipped out of a church function to tap trees and left the rest of us to endure an awkward after-church potluck and games gathering. As a family of introverts, we (as one) revolted. Soon after our two strong sons disappeared into adulthood and far from the sugar bush. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I’ve had weird luck with broken arms and hands in March so I’m never much help and stand by the fire only now and again to see how things are progressing (I am the main imbiber of the golden sweetness though).

My husband is not 100% selfless. He loves to plan, to improve, to go bigger, to make more, to give away more, and especially how by the second or third week the sun warms the chair he sits in as he listens to the bubbling sap. There is nothing like the smell of maple on the wind. The dogs instantly lift their noses to it when I take them outside on their little rambles. Nala the farm dog used to lounge with my husband until a local marathon runner started jogging by. Nala hates fast moving people and makes it very plain. Nobody likes a big white wolf-dog snarling and hopping at their heels.

In pioneer days the young people loved a good sugaring-off party for sweets and sparking. We do that too when I remember to bring my husband out coffee. Here’s how native New Yorker THURLOW WEED remembered it:

This is a season to which the farmer’s sons and daughters look forward with agreeable anticipations. In that employment toil is more than literally sweetened. The occupation and its associations are healthful and beneficial. When your troughs are dug (out of basswood, for there were no buckets in those days), your trees tapped, your sap gathered, your wood cut, and your fires fed, there is leisure either for reading or ‘sparking.’ And what youthful denizens of the sap-bush will ever forget, while ‘sugaring-off,’ their share in the transparent and delicious streak of candy congealed and cooled in the snow? Many a farmer’s son had found his best opportunities for mental improvement in his intervals of leisure while ‘tending sap-bush.’ Such, at any rate, was my own experience. At night you had only to feed the kettles and keep up your fires — the sap having been gathered and the wood cut ‘before dark.’ During the day we would also lay in a good stock of fat pine, by the light of which, blazing brightly in front of the sugar-house, in the posture the serpent was condemned to assume as a penalty for tempting our great first grandmother, I have passed many and many a delightful night in reading. I remember in this way to have read a history of the French Revolution, and to have obtained from it a better and more enduring knowledge of its events and horrors, and of the actors in that great national tragedy, than I have received from all subsequent readings. I remember also how happy I was in being able to borrow the book of a Mr. Keyes, after a two mile tramp through the snow, shoeless, my feet swaddled in remnants of a rag-carpet.

Thurlow Weed, History of the Town of Marathon

Here’s the way the season goes:

When the days of the thaw and nights of cold are balanced perfectly (days 40-52 degrees/nights 24-32 degrees) the sap starts flowing — for how long nobody knows so you have to be ready!

My husband has a source of free pine which is the preferred wood for boiling. He cuts, stacks and ages it all year long.

In late February we tramp through the snow, falling in when there’s a layer of ice on top, looking for the maples marked for tapping the previous summer. In the old days farmers would sit by their hearths in winter whittling sumac spiles (spouts). to tamp into the bored holes on the sunny side of trees at least 10-12″ in diameter and 1-4ft from the ground. Nowadays you can buy metal or plastic spiles online (but do it early!).

The average farmer in the olden times relied on a good cooper for his buckets. My 4x great grandfather was a master cooper until the drink dulled his skills. A leaky bucket then was very bad indeed. I imagine my poor grandmother doing her best to keep the family in funds with her spinning, but from what I know, the children suffered. Drink sap to play it safe. Sweet water (before it’s boiled down) can give you a bad stomach ache so don’t be greedy!

Millions of sap buckets were required in the mid-nineteenth century and each one was made by hand and sold for six cents a piece:

They were shaped not for finish nor beauty, but solely for utility, and not one unnecessary stroke went into their construction. Almost invariably the material was the very best old, free-splitting white pine … Neither the inside nor outside of the staves was touched with any tool, but left with the grain showing as rived from the block. The edges of the staves, however, must be beveled and jointed with almost perfect accuracy, and the bottom must fit the chine, the groove cut to receive it, with the same preciseness.”

The Golden Age of Homespun by Jared van Wagenen, Jr.

Some say that Native Americans boiled down sap and showed the process to the first pioneers, others disagree and say it’s only folklore because the Native process in the way that it’s spoken of doesn’t seem to get the sap quite hot enough to be true. Maybe they just drank the sweet water as-is which with the minerals may have seemed a healthy tonic. Who knows?

The first year we tapped trees, we boiled sap over a metal grate sitting on cinder blocks. My husband’s set-up improved over the years and now he boils on a converted fuel oil tank.


In the last month he picked up two old oil tanks, some angle iron and a welding machine off Craigslist. I steered clear of the sparks that he said could blind me until the tank looked like this:

The tank was empty so my husband welded the shelf within–I had no idea what it all meant until it began to come together .

First we put in some sand and leveled it:

Then I had the job of cleaning old mortar from the bricks also gotten off Craigslist while husband cut a door into the tank.

Cutting through metal is loud!
This looked so pretty!
Oliver the cat (who stares down foxes) loves the cozy vibe of an evaporator.

Carrying the full buckets of sap back to the evaporator is a test of endurance when snow is still on the ground (some years a foot or two of it). The pioneers used to have yokes to wear over shoulders with hooks on the end for buckets or big barrels as reservoirs on sleds to bring the sweet water to the fire. We lug the buckets out of the woods (the reason the boys go AWOL). Some people have intricate systems of plastic tubing running into a reservoir at an easier location to access the sap. We’ve had years where we’ve had to climb snowy hills to retrieve the buckets –a lot of splashed out sap! We’ve also dug out snowy trails in February. The boys did not approve. Now my husband uses a mix of human and tractor power to get the sap. It’s not as picturesque, but I’m not complaining. I like my coffee sweet.

Once the maple trees start to bud and the peepers come alive in the puddles and ponds of melted winter, farmers know the Frog Run has come, the final sap drips just as the daffodils begin to stretch from the garden beds. And just like that the robins arrive and the buckets go away for another year.

The neighbors greet my husband with grins as he tramps up their driveways with gallons of the real deal.

Yet, haply, in some lull of life,
Some Truce of God which breaks its strife,
The worldling’s eyes shall gather dew,
      Dreaming in throngful city ways
Of winter joys his boyhood knew;
And dear and early friends—the few
Who yet remain—shall pause to view
      These Flemish pictures of old days;
Sit with me by the homestead hearth,
And stretch the hands of memory forth
      To warm them at the wood-fire’s blaze!
And thanks untraced to lips unknown
Shall greet me like the odors blown ...
John Greenleaf Whittier

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The door to oblivion, kitty …

Some of this post comes from my old farm blog at RAISING MILK AND HONEY

We no longer raise milk or honey. After too many bee swarms my husband realized how much he hated seeing bees die. I felt the same about my goats. Despite years of vet bills and consults we just couldn’t figure out why our goats always failed to thrive. We have some theories about our sulfur water preventing uptake of copper in goats, but who knows? Our sheep are much healthier and just as cute.

What Do You Do In Your Spare Time?

We all live busy lives. I was a little too busy to write anything lately so instead you get a visual sneak peek into my last few days!

On Sunday I broke out my old Civil War Reenacting gear for a book fair. The dress was a real hit — it’s what gave me the courage to participate in two panel discussions on history and fiction! It also landed me  gigs at possibly three different venues in the area in 2019! The main thing though was that it was really fun!


On Monday it was back to living my real life of flannels, boots and mud with my favorite lamb escaping yet again  from our electric fencing. I seriously have no idea how she does it. I tried letting the other sheep out so she’d join the herd, but they all decided (now that we have a new neighbor) to escape onto the neighbor’s front lawn. I spent the next hour chasing Natasha (with Prince Andrei in tow) around the perimeter of the electric fence. I couldn’t stay mad at her because she knew what she was doing and it was funny. She’d let me get right up behind her before bouncing off in the playful ways lambs do.

Finally I caught her:

A Note: Little Natasha is safe and sound and, aside from her wounded pride, she was perfectly fine once I got her back with the other sheep. 🙂

So … readers and writers, what do you do in your spare time? Do you like dressing up? Let me know in the comments!

“People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.” ― Peter F. Drucker

“Broadly speaking, as good as it feels to have a plan, it’s even more freeing to realize that nearly no misstep can destroy you. This gives you the courage to improvise and experiment.” Tim Ferriss

Did you know about purple chickens? I didn’t until recently. I visualized having one. The very next day an ad for lavender Orpington roosters appeared on Craigslist.

“Wait. Why do we need a rooster again?” my husband asked, remembering when I was stabbed through the ankle by an evil rooster. “I had to carry you to the barn to milk the goats the next morning, remember?”

“Well. It’s purple.” A very logical reply from me I thought. Similar to my reply when asked why we needed call ducks — “they’re cute.”

I promptly named our lavender rooster Rhett Butler. So far he’s affectionate. He climbs on my shoulder and rubs his purple head against my cheek. Too adorable, really.

Lately I’ve been a little lost because I finished writing an emotional roller-coaster of a SIX BOOK SERIES. I decided to give myself time off. I started feeling a vague sense of unease about time off. My mind looked for things to be fearful about. It was officially time to get a purple rooster.

The lady getting rid of the rooster gave me the wrong address. The address didn’t actually exist but we found a house with chickens in the front yard. The lady said to just go around back when we got there. A couple sat in an open field a ways off as we walked through a magical secret garden with tamed turkeys and chickens squawking and fluttering about. The look on the couple’s faces as we called out to them immediately told us we were at the wrong place.

After their initial shock they graciously gave us a tour of their shady gardens overflowing with woodland ferns and pockets of sun-drenched bee balm along tamped down dirt paths. Their pet La Mancha goats begged to have their chins rubbed. This secret garden made getting lost so worth it.


Eventually we found the real chicken seller at her fixer-upper farm. She waved from the roadside with her husband beside her. They were an older couple but just starting their farm dream and had big plans. Their enthusiasm for life was infectious. Their enthusiasm for their many hens and roosters was adorable. In one night of seeking a purple chicken my faith in humanity was heightened. Rhett Butler will always remind me of the surprises that come with allowing for little adventures.

Solid plans and a long waits can be good things, but I’ve found that waiting until you’re ready to live your dream isn’t as much fun as just doing it.



43 Literary Gardens

Gardens Change People!

Gardens make us feel like gods. They change deserts to paradise. They open hearts seeking more to life than just survival.

One day I was listless and unhappily married, the next found me hauling dirt ten blocks on the top of my children’s stroller.

The view from the ground floor Brooklyn apartment I lived in was pretty bleak. Concrete and brick abounded. Shouting and laughter from the bar across the way annoyed me when on sunny afternoons my children tried to nap.

Middlemay Farm garden

I bought a pack of 6 purple petunias, crept through the damp basement (the only way to get to my new secret garden space) and set the potted garden on my sill. But I’m obsessive. I saved pennies (we were broke), I stole irises from my mother and scanned gardening catalogues for days in January for cheap but pretty bushes that didn’t mind Brooklyn’s cramped spaces.

The first summer after my catalogue purchases I dragged in used furniture and argued with the landlord about cutting down a weedy sumac tree (non-poisonous). He was Greek and missed his gardens so let me have the final say with a warning to keep things under control.

The next summer the honeysuckle and the creeping ivy burst forth to cover an eyesore wall. A butterfly bush bloomed in the makeshift bed by the ugly chain link fence and I was hooked. The stroller took a beating but my kids loved walking the mile each day to get Italian ices (my husband had landed a good paying IT job by then) after I purchased yet more dirt and flowers.


Gardening Brings New Friends

010From nowhere squirrels, butterflies and robins arrived — their songs softening the bar noise. And then it happened. Neighbors I didn’t even know I had (since I was totally consumed with beautifying my life) started hailing me from their apartment windows. They loved the birds. They asked about the unusual plants. They smiled.

Literary Gardens

When I imagined my character John Weldon arriving at the McCullough home I knew he would fall in love with the girl in the garden, but first he fell for the garden with its possibilities. For a man escaping the wilderness of war Sarah McCullough’s charming garden offers Weldon hope that life is about more than just surviving.

 “Weldon, make yourself comfortable in the yard. I’ll be back lickety split.”

Weldon nodded and stepped back from the horse as it pulled away. His hands sweated. He had stayed away the Sunday but could not stand to be alone another day. A rabbit ran through the garden of ripe tomatoes and green pumpkins. A small tortoiseshell cat lay sunning itself on the side porch, where brooms and yard tools were hidden by trailing morning glories in blue and purple.

Weldon considered bolting. He didn’t belong here, but after a quick glance toward the house he crouched down to run his fingers over the hilly pumpkin skins and the soft round tomatoes. Weldon pulled a furry leaf from the low-lying lamb’s ears and slipped it into his pocket. Sunny black-eyed Susans burst out where they’d be most pleasing. The wild lilies stood at attention like well-disciplined followers of an inspired leader. Weldon marveled at the planning. His visit was unplanned, unannounced—that had been a blunder. The McCullough family might not like such surprises, and it was still so early in the day. [THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD]

Do you have a favorite garden in books? How about in your real life? Let me know in the comments!






Our new baby call ducks!



#WritersLife at Middlemay Farm

The last of my novels are awaiting their final editing (more about how great KEVIN BRENNAN of INDIE-SCRIBABLE EDITORIAL SERVICES has been in a future post).

Spring has arrived and just in time. As my dogs can tell you, we were getting a little too used to slacking in bed.


Yes, this is our new basement hideout/bedroom/writing space. The dogs never want to leave but I have to occasionally go outside to see if one of these has arrived:


I named our only black lamb Prince Andrei after he came down with a sickness that could have taken his life. He survived but is having a little trouble fitting in …

I’m having the same trouble finding time to write, but I said I was taking a small break to get used to my new surroundings which aren’t half bad:

Today I’d love to know how your spring is going. Do you have a special place to dream or nap? Any new arrivals causing you to reshuffle your space?

If you’ve done a post about your space leave me a link. I love seeing how other people live.

Rosie is so not interested in my books! Brat!



Why Fred Has No Empathy

Birthing season at the farm always comes with a certain amount of rejection and heartache. Since I’ve switched to sheep from dairy goats at least I don’t have to convince bewildered first-time milkers to jump immediately onto a stand. Our sheep seem hardier than our goats and so far they are better mothers, but there is one black sheep (Kelly) who tries but fails to be as good as her peers. In life equality in the eyes of the law is different from equality of ability and its rewards. Life is unfair. The sheep deal with it (as far as I can tell).

The other morning Kelly gave birth to two mocha-toned lambs and a stunning black ram lamb. He was a little groggy that morning so I made a mental note to keep an eye on him. He’s on my lap now. Kelly didn’t mind him at first but after a few hours of him unsuccessfully searching for her teat Kelly was done. And when I say done, I mean really done, like slamming-the-little-guy-up-against-the-wall done.

I scooped up the victim of inequality into my arms and whisked him into the house. My daughters fell in love with the weakened creature I’d already named PRINCE ANDREI (the jury is still out–will our prince live or die?).

Out in the barn Kelly seems to adore her other children. With animals we say that instinctively they sense the weaknesses of their offspring and make the tough calls. Humans don’t do this–or do they?

On one hand, humans have written tragic and inspiring stories about sickly, beautiful people (Prince Andrei). On the other we rationalize exterminating people either because they don’t share our viewpoints or because they are mentally or physically deficient(to put them out of their perceived misery).

Did you know that mentally or physically weaker children have a higher likelihood of being abused by a parent? Many times siblings are spared the rod while one child is made victim.

In a very micro way I saw this play out in my own family. My father (and his father before him) blurred the lines quite often between teasing and severe verbal abuse. I learned early on how to manipulate the system by skirting rules and remaining in the shadows. I also played the good girl role. A sibling who was slow to develop verbal skills was subjected to constant verbal abuse, as was another sibling who had trouble with her weight. Another was just more sensitive  and was teased for her sensitivity.

In the few studies that I’ve found on the topic mental health professionals wonder what happens to the child who only watches the abuse of a sibling. The child has discovered a way of avoiding personal harm yet lives in a chaotic environment of constantly shifting alliances. The child is “friends” with the parent and feels guilty about their siblings.

In my case this led to a lack of empathy for my siblings who seemed to bring on the chaos. As a young child exposed to too many shows about humankind’s destruction of endangered species I felt a great sense of guilt for suffering furry things. I hated people and myself in particular. I bullied other children–especially my  best friend (who was also abused at home).

In my books Buck is the singled out CHILD OF ABUSE. Fred, his (evil?) twin, is the watcher. He’s the smart one who plays the game right and loses his ability to empathize with victims. As with all my characters, his is not a lost case. He has moments of love–especially for his twin–but his instincts for survival are too strong.

Sheep bash weak ones against hard things. Humans are special and different. Unlike sheep we are capable of seeing possibilities in the weakest of us. Going around bullying people is the easiest and stupidest thing we humans can choose to do (even if the person you want to kill voted for someone you hated).

There is no reason for us to act like a bunch of sheep. I don’t bully people anymore. My father not only teased us but also loved us deeply. I knew his flaws and still loved him. My siblings were obviously the victims of a behavior that was seen as perfectly normal and harmless–I see that now.

People and their relationships are so incredibly fascinating. The suffering, the resiliency, the love, the hate.

Sheep are cute but humans are so much more. The possibilities are endless.