Mother nature’s sending a message

Orchardists begin to worry when the seasons skip the freezing winter.This spring was a record-breaking season for attendance at the annual Mount Hope Maple Madness, held at Camp Eder, on Mount Hope Road, Hamiltonban Township. The event was staged by Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve, an environmental education facility a short distance from Camp Eder.

Folks from miles around showed up to learn about maple syrup making, and to enjoy some of the sweet, sticky nectar on hot pancakes.

“It was our best year ever,” said Strawberry Hill Programs and Events Manager Autumn Arthur of the more than 600 breakfasters.

Unfortunately, the weather that was great for pancake eaters was not as wonderful for maple syrup producers.

Maple syrup requires a cold winter to prepare the maple sap – the nearly clear, slightly sweet, watery liquid that parks during December and January in the trees’ roots. As spring makes its entrance, normally around the end of February, the sap thaws and begins to flow up the tree to the limbs and leaves. Sap collectors drill into the trees, insert a “spile” to guide the dripping fluid into a bucket, and haul the collection to a central point where is cooked until it caramelizes into the sticky amber stuff that provides a reason for the existence of waffles and pancakes.

To make a gallon of maple syrup from Red Maple trees – the kind of maples common in southern Pennsylvania – one must collect 60-80 gallons of sap as it flows during warm days into the limbs and leaves when the days start getting longer and temperatures warmer. (Sugar Maple, common northward, from the Pennsylvania mountains, into New York and New England, require only about 40 gallons of sap for a gallon of syrup.)

“We probably got 20 gallons of sap this year so far,” Arthur said of the sap collection that started nearly a month ago – and a month early, by what once were “normal” standards.

Warm days, with temperatures in the 40s, and below freezing nights, are required to keep the sap sugar content high and the trees from budding out. Ordinarily, those conditions could be expected well into March. Since 2013 – which Arthur said was the most recent good year for making maple syrup – each winter has been progressively shorter and warmer.

“2013 was when we had … maybe a gallon and a half (of syrup),” she said.

Our planet broke its temperature record in 2014. In 2015, it broke the 2014 record. In December 2015, I was motorcycling around the county, shooting pictures of budding apple trees, talking with orchardists who were worried about their coming crops. I had purchased a snowthrower, thinking if winter was close to what it had been, there was going to be more snow than I felt like shoveling; Spring 2016 arrived with my machine’s having burned only a half tank of gas.

Last year set a new record as the warmest year since at least 1880, when official records began being kept. Each month in 2016 was record-breaking warmer than the month before it.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally pulled the snowthrower out and fired it up, making sure I was ready for first snowstorm of the season, which weather prognosticators said was about to bury my house.

The “storm” came and went, someplace, but not in South Central Pennsylvania, where my snowthrower still sits ready, with a half tank of gasoline.

At Maple Madness this year, a record number of people got to learn how maple syrup is made, and taste the treasure on their breakfast. The way things are going, it may be a treasure becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.

I wonder what message Mother Nature is trying to send us.

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