New Hampshire Writer Examines the Business and Pleasure of Making Maple Syrup
Douglas Whynott of Langdon, N.H. is the author of The Sugar Season, a book of documenting a maple sugar business and the sugaring season of Bruce Bascom in Alstead, N.H.
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"The Sugar Season" by Douglas Whynott
A t the tail end of one of the coldest winters in recent memory, with sugar maples yet to have a prolonged sap run, it might be hard to remember that just two years ago maple syrup producers were confronting the warmest March in recorded U.S. weather history.
Ideal temperatures for sugaring are daytime highs in the 40s, and nighttime temperatures in the 20s. But in March 2012, temperatures in northern New England soared into the 80s, as if winter had skipped spring and launched right into summer. Sugar maples had a normal run of sap at first but began behaving erratically, producing off-flavored sap, and then a lumpy jelly-like substance. After three weeks of such heat, trees stopped producing altogether.
When it was all over by March 21, give or take a few days, the season was a disappointment. The U.S. crop was 1.9 million gallons; the 2011 crop, by contrast, had been about 3.2 million gallons.
The story of that year is told by writer Douglas Whynott in The Sugar Season (DaCapo). Whynott has long been interested in forests and trees, and the science and craft of sugaring, he said in an interview at his home in Langdon, N.H., where he lives on top of a big hill with a dizzying, panoramic view west to Vermont’s mountains.
The boiling of sap into syrup is a much-storied part of the region’s history and economy. For New Englanders, though, there’s a more primal reason to pay attention to sugaring.
“When liquid starts going through the tubing,” Whynott said, “you think, OK, winter’s over; spring is coming.”
A writer of much -praised nonf iction books, Whynott has followed the tuna fishery off New England waters in Giant Bluefin and looked at the role of bees in American agriculture in Following the Bloom: Across America with the Migratory Beekeepers. H e explored the art of boatbuilding in A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time: Joel White’s Last Boat , and the life of a rural veterinarian in A Country Practice . He also teaches writing at Emerson College in Boston.
Although Whynott doesn’t tap maple trees himself, he’s gotten to know numerous syrup producers in northern New England and Quebec, including the main subject of his book, Bruce Bascom, who lives in Acworth , N.H.
Whynott began visiting him at at his business, Bascom Maple Farms in neighboring Alstead, because he was curious about the process of making syrup. Bascom both makes syrup himself and buys it from other suppliers to sell on the world market.
In 2010, Bascom produced nearly 24,000 gallons of syrup, or more than a fourth of New Hampshire’s entire crop; he is one of this country’s largest producers of syrup. That same year he was inducted into the Maple Hall of Fame in Croghan, N.Y., an organization that recognizes people throughout the U.S. who have contributed research and technological advances to the industry.
“There is more to the maple industry than people realize,” Bascom told Whynott early on, an observation that was borne out in Whynott’s subsequent research.
One barrel of maple syrup is more expensive than one barrel of crude oil, Whynott said. People pay top dollar to get “that iconic taste of maple that originates in North America,” he said.
Although many of us still may have an image of buckets hanging on trees and plumes of steam rising from small shacks set back in the woods, which is certainly part of the story, there are large producers, like Bascom, who run their syrup operations as big business.
Maple syrup brings in an estimated $150 to $175 million in the U.S. annually, Whynott said. (Still, it’s relatively small change compared to artificial syrup, which is an $18 billion business).
It’s an even bigger business in Canada, which produces between 70 and 80 percent of the world crop, bringing in between $350 to $400 million yearly. Numbers fluctuate yearly for both the U.S. and Canada, depending, of course, on what kind of season producers experience.
Quebec is Canada’s leading producer of syrup, and controls production and marketing through the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, known simply by the Star Trek-like moniker the Federation.
Whynott had been trying to get a book out of maple syrup since 2010, but publishers told him, too regional, too small, not a national story. Then came the spring of 2012. “Everything was odd that year,” Whynott said. “The peepers were coming out early, cherry trees were blossoming.”
Was this just an anomaly, or a sign of how climate change was recalibrating the seasons? And if the soaring temperatures were related to climate disruption, what might that mean for the future health of sugar maples and for syrup producers? Were sugar maples a kind of canary in the coal mine? Now publishers saw the larger context, and Whynott got a book deal.
Bascom was the obvious protagonist. Not only did Bascom, who is now 63, know the industry inside and out but he’d been driven to succeed by a contentious relationship with his father Ken, who’d started the business. The two men were often stubborn rivals, until Ken Bascom’s death.
The theme of father-son competition is one that recurs in Whynott’s books because he and his own father were frequently at odds while he was growing up; “I unconsciously look for it,” he said. His father ran a real estate business on Cape Cod, where Whynott grew up, and although Whynott doesn’t go into great detail, he said that as he grew older, his feeling that the Cape was becoming overdeveloped led to conflict with his father, although there were also other reasons for their rift.
“We missed the opportunity to have a closer relationship and I regret that,” he said.
Whynott left the Cape to study anthropology and journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He also earned his M.F.A. in writing there, and, for the most part, has lived in the shadow of the Connecticut River ever since, with the exception of a year of teaching at Columbia University in New York, and those periods spent researching his books elsewhere. He was awarded a Fulbright last year to Bogota, Colombia, where he taught writing and literary journalism at the country’s National University, and toiled away on drafts of The Sugar Season .
Being 5,000 miles away from New Hampshire “freed up my thinking,” he said. The distance allowed him to see his subject with a greater clarity, he said, than if he’d been working on the book at home.
Working on a book that has a living person as its subject can present its problems, but Whynott and Bascom spent long stretches of time together without much in the way of conflict. “There’s a kind of intimacy, a friendship that develops,” Whynott said. He shuns what he calls the “derisive tone” of the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s as exemplified by such writers as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. “You don’t want to have a tone that’s harsh or denigrating.”
Nonetheless, any writer doing a detailed portrait of a person will encounter bumps in the road, which happened to Whynott when news broke toward the end of 2012 that 6 million pounds of syrup had been stolen earlier in the summer from a Federation warehouse near Montreal — call it syrup rustling — and that some of the syrup had found its way into the U.S. Arrests followed in December 2013.
One report from a Quebec television station indicated that Bascom’s had been one of three U.S. distributors to buy the stolen syrup. But had Bascom bought it knowingly?
“I went right over to Bascom’s and said, What’s this about?” Whynott said. It turned out, after an investigation by Quebec police, that Bascom was in the clear. But the kerfuffle illustrated the potential pitfalls that await when a writer and reporter balances the duty to write something that is “accurate and true, but fair to the person,” Whynott said. “These are the ethical dilemmas that evolve.”
After years spent writing, editing and now publicizing the book, has Whynott developed maple syrup fatigue?
“Never!” he booms.
He tells the story of first tasting maple syrup at the relatively advanced age of 25, when he received a small jug as a present, and being amazed and seduced by its complex layers of sweetness. He kept sipping it by the teaspoon, unable to stop himself.
There’s more to the story of maple syrup than just the technology and business of it, of course. Sugaring is a central part of the the New England culture, but it also speaks to something deeper in the human makeup that yearns for the coming of spring and sees magic in harvesting sap that undergoes a metamorphosis into a kind of liquid gold.
“You do it with fire and steam and smoke. It’s as primitive as can be. Some people still do it in the old way. You just get a big fire going and you get a big pan and you boil all day, and it’s a wonderful feeling,” Whynott said.
Whynott will give a reading of The Sugar Season at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord on Wednesday, April 2, at 7 p.m.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.