On Saturday, rather than joining the crowds at the annual Sap Gathering Contest at Stonewall Farm, I took Reggie for quiet walk atop Beech Hill, where they tap sugar maples the newfangled way.

As I explained last year, Stonewall Farm’s Sap Gathering Contest celebrates the old-fashioned method for tapping springtime sugar maples. At Stonewall Farm, individual buckets collect sap from individual trees, then drivers leading horse-drawn sleds empty those buckets by hand to transport back to the sugar house. It’s a traditional and incredibly picturesque way to make maple syrup, with old-fashioned aluminum buckets hanging from trees while horse-drawn sleds labor through snow, spring-melt, and mud: pretty as a picture. It’s the way you’d imagine maple sugaring in Robert Frost’s day, or Norman Rockwell’s: New England as it used to be, with weathered hands using worn equipment to do things the tried and true way.

On the road that wends toward the top of Beech Hill here in Keene, though, the sugar maples are tapped the newfangled way. Blue tubes stretch from tree to tree, connecting sap-taps like a giant interconnected, arborial IV. Small trees bear a single tap; large trees bear several, their sap-tubes intersecting so the sweet stuff flows away from each tree and downhill toward a single blue plastic barrel that collects all the sap from a row of trees. There’s no need to hang individual buckets; there’s no worry that plastic parts will rust. And for sugar-bush owners lucky enough to have trees growing along a road, there’s no need for horse-drawn sleds: just drive a truck alongside that blue plastic barrel for easy transport.

I’m sure there are many tourists–folks who drive from miles around to see the Sap Gathering Contest–who would lament the switch from old-fashioned to newfangled. Stonewall Farm taps trees the old-fashioned way as a way of educating youngsters how things used to be done and as a way of showcasing those farmers who still breed and train draft horses. But just as most modern farmers use tractors instead of horse- or ox-drawn plows–and just as most modern suburbanites use cars rather than horse and buggy–most maple sugar outfits have kept up with the times, using whatever modern conveniences they can to make their job easier and more efficient.

Can you blame them? If you relied upon the watery lifeblood of trees for your livelihood–if you knew that the sap gathered within a several-week span of spring would be the only income you’d gather from your trees for an entire year–wouldn’t you do whatever it takes to make your work easier, less wasteful, and more efficient? Sugar maples studded with taps and coiled with blue tubing might not be as picturesque as what you pictured…but when you head off to the office everyday, do you dress for success or for the enjoyment of visiting paparazzi?

    By way of demonstrating how mild a winter we’ve had, look again at the bare ground in today’s first picture, then compare that to the snowcover we had at last year’s Sap Gathering. Does the term “global warming” spring to mind?

    UPDATE: Check out the picture of an old-fashioned sap-pail Granite State photoblogger Ron Cillizza posted today. It seems that come spring, NH bloggers’ hearts turn to things sappy and sweet…