I like growing and processing my own food on site. I can’t do it as much as I’d like to, and I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be, but there’s still something really satisfying about a salad that grew in your own weedy yard, or an omelet from your own sassy birds. I’m limited on what I can do here, both by the climate and by neighborhood covenants and by my own black thumb, but I do what I can and I love it.
One of the recent additions to my wanna-be homesteading repertoire (along with the beekeeping I talked about a couple weeks ago) is syrup making. Our climate is too cold for maple trees to survive, but if you’re stubborn and not afraid to steam the paint off your walls, you can boil down birch sap and make syrup.
The process of making birch syrup is the same as that for making maple syrup, but a bit… tricksier, let’s say. Birch sap has a lower sugar concentration, so it takes twice as much sap to make the same amount of syrup. Birch sap is also very perishable and must be processed or frozen quickly. Unfortunately, the sugars in the sap also scorch more easily than maple sugars do.
But the trees make up for their lame sap by giving you tons of it. Birch syrup making therefore takes a lot of boiling. We had only three trees tapped and we couldn’t even fit all the sap in our gigantic canner. We were getting sap faster than we could boil it down, the stove was on constantly, and our poor ceiling started dripping like it was raining in the kitchen. We gathered hundreds of liters of sap, and all of it boiled down to a just couple pints of sap. (Yes, I used liters and pints in the same sentence. I’m bilingual!)
Truth be told, syrup making and story writing are both total pains. They take up a ton of time and energy with little to show for it at the end. And honestly, I might not think it was worth it if I was only concerned with the results. A tiny bottle of syrup might not be enough to entice me through the whole process. But fortunately, the process itself is part of the fun. Let’s take a look!
Sap Flow I can’t really lay a lot of claim to this part of the process. Sap flow happens, whether I collect it or not. Likewise, story inspiration is out there, whether I’m paying attention to it or not. But if I know it’s happening, I can take steps to collect and process the flow. When I set the taps in the tree, that’s like starting to pay attention to all these amazing story ideas all around me.
Sap Collecting A single birch tree during peak flow can give as much as three gallons of sap from a single tap. For this part, simply drill a hole, set a tap, and let it dribble into a bucket. Then all you have to do is fetch a bucket of birch water once a day, easy peasy. For me, nothing about the writing process is easier than the giddy headlong rush through a first draft. When I’m in Go Mode, I can crank out up to 80k words in a month. Granted, I’m not usually moving that fast, but when the story’s fun, it just flows.
Hard Boiling Birch sap is about 99% water, so you can really boil the heck out of it when you first start processing it. It is insane how much boiling sap takes and it is insane how much editing an all-over-the-place garbage fest of a first draft needs. Especially when it’s my first draft. This is the longest part of the process and can sometimes take days for sap—or years for books.
Final Boiling Nine times out of ten, when you’re making syrup, this is the point at which things go irreversibly and horribly wrong. If you’re not watching that pot like a hawk to pull it at the right time, you can end up with syrup that is watery and not concentrated enough (and will inevitably spoil), or too concentrated and the consistency of wood-flavored taffy, or scorched, or any of a dozen other problems. Fortunately, your final draft is only mildly like this stage in syrup-making. If you take out too much, you can simply put it back in. If you don’t cut enough, you can go back and pull more. And the nasty burnt bits can be swapped out for something sweeter. All is not lost. (At least, so long as the end does eventually roll around. Endless editing is its own kind of story death.)
Bottling The final step is to bottle your beautiful dark syrup in a hot water bath and pop it in the pantry. It almost feels anticlimactic. Likewise, it can feel a little strange to finally be done with a story after working on it for so long. But syrup, like stories, is sweetest when shared with others. Opening up your work for the scrutiny of others can be a bit scary, but it is very rewarding to have something you poured so much work into bring a smile to someone else’s face.
I’ve mentioned my Star Daughter series here a few times. It’s a good example of this process. That story has gone through over twelve drafts (at which point I stopped counting) and over a million words, every single one haphazardly added, cut, rewritten, revised, rearranged, culled, and fleshed out. It took me yeeeeears to boil all those ideas down to the heart of the story I wanted to tell. Of course, this process doesn’t have to take years. (It probably shouldn’t, really.) But it’s a process that needs to happen for every story we write.
So what part of this process am I in right now? Ugh, good question. I’ve been hopping around between projects a bit, which is a thing I personally should never ever do. But I decided this morning that I want to pop out a couple shorts before the end of the month, new ideas from start to finish. So I’ll be getting going on that in the morning. I’ve been feeling a bit blah on writing lately (and about a lot of things), so I’m hoping that this gets the story sap flowing a bit more.
I’ll let you know how it’s going next week. Until then, happy writing!