11 months into the realized US pandemic, the kids and Eric and I went maple sugaring. My
dream activity. I remember doing it as a little kid. The disappointing taste of the watery sap and
the promise of the thick gooey syrup that would result later, a sweet tooth’s preferred alchemy.
We went to the Oregon Ridge Nature Center, in northern Baltimore County.
The experience was set up so there were stations. We had to make a reservation in advance, and
sign COVID waivers ahead of time. When we got there, after signing in, we headed to the first
station — manned by a young woman who reminded me of a first year teacher — 24, short, bob
haircut, enthusiastic but kind and calm. Not yet jaded, not yet exhausted. She taught us about
spiles — the name I could’t remember until 3 stations down when we were quizzed on it, and
that person said it rhymed with smile. She showed us two metal spiles, and two kinds of drills.
“The kind my Dad has,” said my 4 year old son, pointing to the familiar yellow and black motif
of modern tools surrounding the hand held drill, and then an old fashioned hand drill, which the
teacher called “rustic”. She showed us the bucket and the cover, to keep the rain from further
diluting already watery sap. And she showed us a ruler, as the maple trees can’t be tapped unless
they are at least 12 inches long. For every 12 inches, one tap can be inserted into the tree.
We nodded and headed on our way, the snow pants clad kids rolling over the hills, to the next
station, manned by a rotund young man with a windbreaker, unzipped. Unphased by the 29
degree temps. His job was to teach us HOW to recognize maple trees. He taught us about the
alternating branch structure — a maple tree has a structure in which each branch has a twin
directly opposite it. In fact, he said, there’s an acronym, as only three different kinds of trees
have this branch structure —maple, ash, and dogwood, the MAD trees.
Of the maples, there are at least ten, he said, but really only the sugar maple is the one maple
syrup is made from. Its’ about 6% sugar, as opposed to 2% for the other species. We learned how
maple branches tip up, and from afar, give a leafless maple tree a characteristic tear drop shape.
“Like that one over there,” he said, pointing to a small, squat, happy tear drop maple tree in the
distance with a hammered metal bucket attached to it. This was the only maple tree with sap
being collected from it that we saw for the rest of the day.
As we were wrapping up at this station, he mentioned how sap from other trees could be used to
make a syrup. Like the black walnut, and he showed us a sample branch, as well as two lemon-sized dark brown objects, the walnut and it’s rind. He said black walnut syrup was possible, but instead of 50 – 60 gallons of sugar maple sap to make a gallon of syrup, you’d need 100 gallons
of black walnut sap.
You have to tap at the end of winter, the woman explained. You need bright sunny warm days
and freezing nights, and you are most likely to get these at the end of winter. Overnight the ice
pushes the sap up, and then during the day it melts and into the spile and then into the bucket it
We meandered on, exploring the ruins of an old furnace until we came upon the next station.
Here, a woman welcomed us, and led us through an activity that combined what we learned at
the first two stations — we were going to identify a tree and tap it! She gave my daughter a ruler.
June identified a maple tree but it was not the requisite twelve inches or larger. She found one
that was big enough, but was a dead maple. The woman led us to a robust tree with lines in its
bark like those in the face of.a grandmother who has laughed and smiled her whole life. This was
a black walnut tree, she explained. And we could tap it. The kids got to drill a 2-inch hole and
hammer in the spile (sounds like smile), and position the bucket. We had made an addition to the
landscape. Black walnut syrup was coming. The woman talked about how black walnut syrup
was delicious — dark and nutty and rich. I recalled the description of the experience where there
would be a chance to purchase syrup at the end. Surely they sold some of this elixir of the black
walnut tree. For I looked around and saw, with my eyes newly adjusted, black walnut tears
decorated with corrugated metal buckets. This seemed like more of a black walnut operation than
At the next station was a stuffed woodpecker, which our children found disturbing. It may have
been the most disturbing thing they ever encountered, which made me wonder about how
sheltered they are. The woman here explained how this woodpecker bored holes in maple sugar
trees that were alive, and showed us a frighteningly organized pattern, for a bird. My son kept
interrupting to ask how the bird died. He wasn’t satisfied with the answer, “from old age”. “How
did he get old?” “We’ll talk about it later.” Chalk that up with Jesus, heaven, and dying from old
age. Far too sheltered. His question about the death of this bird that did not look dead centered
this experience. As we left, she mentioned how delicious and rich the black walnut syrup was.
Our next station we could see from far away, and it looked like an art installation from afar, like
something we might have seen in our NYC days. As we got closer, we discovered it was a
collection of old milk jugs, attached to a rope tied between two trees — black walnut trees! —
and merrily bobbling along together, orbs of happiness. He told us there were 50 — this was a
representation of what was required to make just one gallon of maple syrup. He used the black
walnut as one example to show us the temperature differential (25 deghrees between the south
side of the tree and the north). We all felt it. He showed us how native Americans made spiles out
of a furry sumac, so the sap wouldn’t drip down the side of the tree after they made their Vshaped
notch. He had made a few himself, and passed them around, letting us take one as a souvenir. As we were leaving, he mentioned how delicious the black walnut syrup was, “In fact,” he said, “I’ve got some eight here.” He removed a small, maybe 8 ounce hexagonal jar out of his bag. “Looks like motor oil, right?” He said, further commenting on its midnight black color and thick consistency. We had to try it, he said. I pictured a whole display of them at the end, maybe they’d even be in a pyramid.
Our next stations showed the evaporation process, from hollowed out logs into which hot stones
were submerged, used by the native Americans to the successively smaller iron pots used by the
first settlers, to the modern day pinball machine-like evaporators. We were at the end. I could see
the display on syrups out of my peripheral vision.
As we walked toward the table, I did my best to hide my immense disappointment. There were
two offerings — plain old run-of-the-mill maple syrup, and honey. Honey! The nerve, I thought,
We are practically on a black walnut farm, and they aren’t selling that here?
“Do you have any of the black walnut syrup?” My husband asked.
“Oh no!” One of the two women said, with a laugh, as if he had asked for a container of C4. “It’s
impossible to get!” The other said, looking knowingly at the first. “You just can’t find it.” She
said. We nodded, feeling like we were definitely missing something.
We walked away with an 8-ounce container of maple syrup. Past black walnut tree after black
The kids went into the playground and we did a post mortem. “They must be making it for
themselves?” “What if we had slipped her a $100?” “Should we go back to the guy making
native American spiles and find out where we got one? Buy one from him directly?”
Sure enough, when I got home, I couldn’t find black walnut syrup on Amazon. In fact, I saw only
black walnut bitters. The marketplace of the world, where I can get anything, does not have this.