Sugar Season


Driving through the neighborhood on these mornings, the ones where the air tastes like a splash of cold water and the sun shines at new angles, I mark the trip from preschool drop off by the flowering trees. Magnolias with pink and white petals as big as my hands. Forty-foot cherry trees boast cotton clouds of pale pink. Forsythia’s wave their mustard arms and redbuds hold onto purple clusters of blooms, like grapes just waiting to split open in the warmth of the sun.


With each passing tree, I debate stopping. To take pictures. But drive on, knowing I could never do the sight (backlit pinks glowing with a silver edge against an icy blue morning sky) justice; like how a picture from the mountains ultimately fails to convey the grandeur you feel while standing there — fully present, yet barely able to take the sight in in real time and scope. Like how the pictures I take of the cherry blossoms blooming around the Tidal Basin each spring can’t capture the experience of walking through a dream.


Spring’s beauty carries with it an inevitable sadness for me. A pain even. Of time-sensitive memories. Of a season too short. Of what a picture cannot stand up to or do justice for, in place of the real thing.  


Most of the trees around here are still bare, just a few have rubbed their eyes of winter’s sleep. It’s the ones who’ve already woken up and started their day that melt my heart, make it ache. They hint at what’s to come, what’s possible, while reminding me another year has passed.


“Aren’t you hot?” one of the preschool moms asks me later in the day. We stand in line to pick up our kids mid-morning and I’m wearing the same thin black jacket I’ve worn all winter. It’s zipped up to my chin.


“No, I’m okay,” I say. I know it’s supposed to warm up, that’s what the weather app says, what Amelia on WTOP says, but I feel what I feel: I woke up cold and stayed that way.  


“Well it was 29 this morning,” the mom says. We wait for our kids and talk about the morning’s frost and I mention down comforters and the hardiness of my daffodils and am hyper-aware that I sound at least twice my age.


“I’m sure it’ll warm up,” I say. That I’ll warm up, is what I mean.


Years ago, a friend told me about a trip she took up north around this same time of year — when the day starts with a chill and ends with the windows open and children playing in shorts in the backyard sandbox. She went to a maple tree farm to work the harvest.


“They call it Sugar Season,” she said.


Sap production technically starts in the summer, when the warm light of the sun creates carbohydrates (in a process called, let’s all say it together: photosynthesis) which turns into starch to be both used by and stored within the tree. In the fall, chlorophyll production slows and the sugar remaining in the leaves change their color. The trees are dormant in the winter and when spring rolls around, the stored starch turns into sucrose which sweetens the sap.  


And it’s only during these early spring days, only during a season as short as four weeks, when nights dip to below freezing and the days warm well above it, when the change in temperature creates enough pressure within the tree for the sap to flow down from the branches into its base (and out, if any holes were tapped into it).  


A tree needs to be a minimum diameter (for sugar maples, it’s twelve inches) before it’s mature enough to be tapped, in order for it not to be injured. This happens when the tree is about 40 years old, a little fact I find significant. Depending on its size, one tree can have up to three taps without affecting future growth. Two to three gallons of sap will drip per tap per day from each tree and a single tree can make between 10 to 20 gallons of sap per tap per season.


(For reference: it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. So that half gallon we buy for what we think is too much money? It contains the volume of at least one tree’s entire season’s worth of sap.)


Some trees drip for just a few hours each day, others go around the clock. It all depends on the tree. And the conditions.


A healthy tree can be tapped year after year until it is well over one hundred years old.


Around the time in my life that my friend helped with Sugar Season, a different friend asked me to pay attention and put words to — to name — the season I was in. No rush, she said, just think about where you are right now. This suggestion wasn’t out of the blue, it flowed naturally out of a conversation we were having about deep questions about life. And she continued to tell me that there’s something worthwhile in having an awareness, through giving it a name, of how that season of my life differed from the past. And with a name, it’ll be easier to see it’s uniqueness from the future.


I later reported back I thought I was in a season of growth. But then quickly added that I felt bad about it.


Why? she asked.


Because for the first time in what felt like ages, I had room to breathe. To take in sun. For my chlorophyll to synthesize the warmth and turn it into starch, so to speak.


And after such a long time of winter, I didn’t know if that was okay. If it was right. If I was allowed to simply enjoy the process of growing. I’m not sure the last time I was in a growing season and it felt too unfamiliar to be comfortable.


Don’t feel bad, she said. It’s okay to rest here while you can. This season won’t last forever either.


Of course. Of course.


Life is full of these tensions. And I can’t decide if this statement is descriptive or prescriptive. It there tension because tension is necessary to life? Or is tension just a way of explaining how things are? Maybe the tension between and within these very questions falls right into the pattern of either/or, both/and? 


I live between joy and sorrow, always.

Between death and life.

Growth and decay.

Striving and rest.

Springtime beauty and winter’s dreariness.

Of old habits and new routines.

Between faith and doubt.

Hope and despair.

Flesh and Spirit.


Sugar season ends when sap stops flowing, around the time a tree begins to bud and leaves unfold — this happens when the night temperatures consistently remain above freezing. The sweet water, this natural byproduct of a growing tree, needs the change in temperature in order to flow.


It needs the pressure. The tension.


Sap doesn’t, wont, can’t flow all year round.


But the entire year, from the dormancy to the summer growth, is necessary. And when the season is over, the sweet sap production process starts again: behind the scenes, within, at the edges, and underneath.



Sonya Spillmann

One Comment

  1. This is beautiful, and poetic, Sonya. And a picturesque way of thinking about the processes of seasons and growth and cycles and life. I’ll be reflecting on this throughout the day as I try to name the season I’m in right now. love you. keep writing.

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