Maple Sugar Moon



When Nanabozho, the Anishinaabe Original Man, our teacher, part man, part manido, walked through the world, he took note of who was flourishing and who was not, of who was mindful of the Original Instructions and who was not. He was dismayed when he came upon villages where the gardens were not being tended, where the fishnets were not repaired and the children were not being taught the way to live. Instead of seeing piles of firewood and caches of corn, he found the people lying beneath maple trees with their mouths wide open, catching the thick, sweet syrup of the generous trees. They had become lazy and took for granted the gifts of the Creator. They did not do their ceremonies or care for one another. He knew his responsibility, so he went to the river and dipped up many buckets of water. He poured the water straight into the maple trees to dilute the syrup. Today, maple sap flows like a stream of water with only a trace of sweetness to remind the people both of possibility and of responsibility. And so it is that it takes forty gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.* * Adapted from oral tradition and Ritzenthaler and Ritzenthaler, 1983. Plink. On an afternoon in March, when the late winter sun is starting to strengthen and moving north a degree or so each day, the sap runs strong. Plink. The yard of our old farmhouse in Fabius, New York, is graced with seven Maples, big ones, planted almost two hundred years ago to shade the house. The largest tree is as wide at its base as our picnic table is long. When we first moved here my daughters reveled in rooting through the loft above the old stable, a space full of the flotsam of almost two centuries of families before us. One day I found them playing with an entire village of little metal pup tents set up under the trees. “They’re going camping, ” they said of their various dolls and stuffed animals, who were peeking out from under their shelter. The loft was full of such “tents” that fit over old-time sap buckets to keep out the rain and snow during sugaring season. When the girls discovered what these little tents were for, of course they wanted to make maple syrup. We scrubbed out the mouse droppings and readied the buckets for spring. During that first winter I read up on the whole process. We had buckets and covers, but no spiles—the spouts you need to drive into the tree to allow the sap out. But we live in Maple Nation and a nearby hardware store carried all things maple sugaring. All things: molds for forming maple sugar leaves, evaporators of every size, miles of rubber tubing, hydrometers, kettles, filters, and jars—none of which I could afford. But tucked away in the back they had oldfashioned spiles, which hardly anyone wants anymore. I got a whole box for seventyfive cents each. Sugaring has changed over the years. Gone are the days of emptying buckets and sledging barrels of sap through the snowy woods. In many sugaring operations, plastic tubing runs right from the trees to the sugar house. But there are still purists out there who cherish the plink of sap into a metal bucket, and that requires a spile. One end is formed into a tube like a drinking straw, which you tap into a hole drilled in the tree. The tube then opens into a trough about four inches long. And at the base there is a handy hook on which to hang the bucket. I bought a big clean garbage can to store the sap and we were ready. I didn’t think we’d need all that storage space, but better to be prepared. In a climate where winter lasts six months, we always search assiduously for signs of spring, but never more eagerly than after we decided to make syrup. The girls ask every day, “Can we start yet?” But our beginning was entirely determined by the season. For the sap to run you need a combination of warm days and freezing nights. Warm is a relative term, of course, thirty-five to forty-two degrees, so that the sun thaws the trunk and starts the flow of sap inside. We watch the calendar and the thermometer, and Larkin asks, “How do the trees know it’s time if they can’t see the thermometer?” Indeed, how does a being without eyes or nose or nerves of any kind know what to do and when to do it? There are not even leaves out to detect the sun; every bit of the tree, except the buds, is swathed in thick, dead bark. And yet the trees are not fooled by a midwinter thaw. The fact is, Maples have a far more sophisticated system for detecting spring than we do. There are photosensors by the hundreds in every single bud, packed with light-absorbing pigments called phytochromes. Their job is to take the measure of light every day. Tightly furled, covered in red-brown scales, each bud holds an embryonic copy of a maple branch, and each bud wants desperately to someday be a full-fledged branch, leaves rustling in the wind and soaking up sun. But if the buds come out too soon they’ll be killed by freezing. Too late and they’ll miss the spring. So the buds keep the calendar. But those baby buds need energy for their growth into branches—like all newborns, they are hungry. We who lack such sophisticated sensors look for other signs. When hollows appear in the snow around the tree bases, I start to think it’s tapping time. The dark bark absorbs the growing heat of the sun and then radiates it back to slowly melt the snow that has lain there all winter. When those circles of bare ground appear, that’s when the first drops of sap will plop onto your head from a broken branch in the canopy. And so with drill in hand we circle our trees searching out just the right spot, three feet up, on a smooth face. Lo and behold, there are scars of past taps long healed over, made by whoever had left those sap buckets in our loft. We don’t know their names or their faces, but our fingers rest right where theirs had been and we know what they too were doing one morning in April long ago. And we know what they had on their pancakes. Our stories are linked in this run of sap; our trees knew them as they know us today. The spiles begin to drip almost as soon as we tap them into place. The first drops splat onto the bottom of the bucket. The girls slide the tented covers on, which makes the sound echo even more. Trees of this diameter could accept six taps without damage, but we don’t want to be greedy and only place three. By the time we’re done setting them up, the first bucket is already singing a different tune, the plink of another drop into the half inch of sap. All day long they change pitch as the buckets fill, like water glasses of different pitch. Plink, ploink, plonk— the tin buckets and their tented tops reverberate with every drop and the yard is singing. This is spring music as surely as the cardinal’s insistent whistle. My girls watch in fascination. Each drop is as clear as water but somehow thicker, catching the light and hanging for a second at the end of the spile, growing invitingly into a larger and larger drop. The girls stretch out their tongues and slurp with a look of bliss, and unaccountably I am moved to tears. It reminds me of when I alone fed them. Now, on sturdy young legs, they are nursed by a maple —as close as they can come to being suckled by Mother Earth. All day long the buckets fill and by evening they are brimming. The girls and I haul all twenty-one to the big garbage can and pour until it is almost full. I had no idea there would be so much. The girls rehang the buckets while I build the fire. Our evaporator is just my old canning kettle, set on an oven rack, spanning stacks of cinder blocks scavenged from the barn. It takes a long time to heat up a kettle of sap and the girls lose interest pretty quickly. I am in and out of the house, keeping fires going in both places. When I tuck them into bed that night, they are full of anticipation of syrup by morning. I set up a lawn chair on the packed-down snow next to the fire, feeding it constantly to keep up a good boil in the now-freezing night. Steam billows from the pot, covering and uncovering the moon in the dry, cold sky. I taste the sap as it boils down, and with every passing hour it is discernibly sweeter, but the yield from this four-gallon kettle will be nothing more than a skin of syrup on the bottom of the pan, scarcely enough for one pancake. So as it boils down I add more fresh sap from the garbage can, hoping to have just one cup of syrup by morning. I add wood, then wrap myself back in blankets, dozing until I can add more logs or sap. I don’t know what time I woke, but I was cold and stiff in my lawn chair, and the fire was burnt to embers, leaving the sap lukewarm. Beaten, I went inside to bed. When I returned in the morning, I found the sap in the garbage can frozen hard. As I got the fire going again, I remembered something I had heard about how our ancestors made maple sugar. The ice on the surface was pure water, so I cracked it and threw it on the ground like a broken window. People of the Maple Nation made sugar long before they possessed trade kettles for boiling. Instead, they collected sap in birch bark pails and poured it into log troughs hollowed from basswood trees. The large surface area and shallow depth of the troughs was ideal for ice formation. Every morning, ice was removed, leaving a more concentrated sugar solution behind. The concentrated solution could then be boiled to sugar with far less energy required. The freezing nights did the work of many cords of firewood, a reminder of elegant connections: maple sap runs at the one time of year when this method is possible. Wooden evaporating dishes were placed on flat stones over the coals of a fire that burned night and day. In the old times, families would all move together to “sugar camp, ” where firewood and equipment had been stored the year before. Grandmothers and the youngest babies would be pulled on toboggans through the softening snow so that all could attend to the process—it took all the knowledge and all the arms to make sugar. Most of the time was spent stirring, good storytelling time when folks from the dispersed winter camps came together. But there were also pulses of furious activity: when the syrup reached just the right consistency, it was beaten so that it would solidify in the desired way, into soft cakes, hard candy, and granulated sugar. The women stored it in birch bark boxes called makaks, sewn tight with spruce root. Given birch bark’s natural antifungal preservatives, the sugars would keep for years. It is said that our people learned to make sugar from the squirrels. In late winter, the hungry time, when caches of nuts are depleted, squirrels take to the treetops and gnaw on the branches of sugar maples. Scraping the bark allows sap to exude from the twig, and the squirrels drink it. But the real goods come the next morning, when they follow the same circuit they made the day before, licking up the sugar crystals that formed on the bark overnight. Freezing temperatures cause the water in the sap to sublimate, leaving a sweet crystalline crust like rock candy behind, enough to tide them over through the hungriest time of year. Our people call this time the Maple Sugar Moon, Zizibaskwet Giizis, The month before is known as the Hard Crust on Snow Moon. People living a subsistence lifestyle also know it as the Hunger Moon, when stored food has dwindled and game is scarce. But the maples carried the people through, provided food just when they needed it most. They had to trust that Mother Earth would find a way to feed them even in the depths of winter. But mothers are like that. In return, ceremonies of thanksgiving are held at the start of the sap run. The Maples each year carry out their part of the Original Instructions, to care for the people. But they care for their own survival at the same time. The buds that sensed the incipient turn of the season are hungry. For shoots that are only one millimeter long to become full-fledged leaves, they need food. So when the buds sense spring, they send a hormonal signal down the trunk to the roots, a wake-up call, telegraphed from the light world to the underworld. The hormone triggers the formation of amylase, the enzyme responsible for cleaving large molecules of starch stored in the roots into small molecules of sugar. When the concentration of sugar in the roots begins to grow, it creates an osmotic gradient that draws water in from the soil. Dissolved in this water from the spring-wet earth, the sugar streams upward as rising sap to feed the buds. It takes a lot of sugar to feed people and buds, so the tree uses its sapwood, the xylem, as the conduit. Sugar transport is usually restricted to the thin layer of phloem tissue under the bark. But in spring, before there are leaves to make their own sugar, the need is so great that xylem is called into duty as well. At no other time of year does sugar move this way, only now when it is needed. Sugar flows upstream for a few weeks in the spring. But when the buds break and leaves emerge, they start making sugar on their own and the sapwood returns to its work as the water conduit. Because the mature leaves make more sugar than they can use right away, the sugar stream starts to flow in the opposite direction, from leaves back to roots, through the phloem. And so the roots, which fed the buds, are now fed in return by the leaves all summer long. The sugar is converted back to starch, stored in the original “root cellar.” The syrup we pour over pancakes on a winter morning is summer sunshine flowing in golden streams to pool on our plates. Night after night I stayed up tending the fire, boiling our little kettle of sap. All day long the plink plink plink of sap filled the buckets and the girls and I gathered them after school to pour into the collecting can. The trees gave sap much faster than I could boil it so we bought another garbage can to hold the excess. And then another. Eventually we pulled the spiles from the trees to stop the flow and avoid wasting the sugars. The end result was terrible bronchitis from sleeping in a lawn chair in the driveway in March and three quarts of syrup, a little bit gray with wood ash. When my daughters remember our sugaring adventure now, they roll their eyes and groan, “That was s o much work.” They remember hauling branches to feed the fire and slopping sap on their jackets as they carried heavy buckets. They tease me about being a wretched mother who wove their connection to the land through forced labor. They were awfully little to be doing the work of a sugaring crew. But they also remember the wonder of drinking sap straight from the tree. Sap, but not syrup. Nanabozho made certain that the work would never be too easy. His teachings remind us that one half of the truth is that the earth endows us with great gifts, the other half is that the gift is not enough. The responsibility does not lie with the maples alone. The other half belongs to us; we participate in its transformation. It is our work, and our gratitude, that distills the sweetness. Night after night I sat by the fire, the girls tucked safely in bed, the rustle of the fire and the bubbling sap a lullaby. Transfixed by the fire, I hardly noticed the sky silver as the Maple Sugar Moon rose in the east. So bright on a clear freezing night, it threw tree shadows against the house—bold black embroidery around the windows where the girls lay sleeping, the shadows of the twin trees. These two, perfectly matched in girth and form, stand centered in front of the house by the edge of the road, their shadows framing the front door like dark columns of a maple portico. They rise in unison without a branch until they reach the roofline, where they spread like an umbrella. They grew up with this house, shaped by its protection. There was a custom in the mid-eighteen hundreds of planting twin trees to celebrate a marriage and the starting of a home. The stance of these two, just ten feet apart, recalls a couple standing together on the porch steps, holding hands. The reach of their shade links the front porch with the barn across the road, creating a shady path of back and forth for that young family. I realize that those first homesteaders were not the beneficiaries of that shade, at least not as a young couple. They must have meant for their people to stay here. Surely those two were sleeping up on Cemetery Road long before the shade arched across the road. I am living today in the shady future they imagined, drinking sap from trees planted with their wedding vows. They could not have imagined me, many generations later, and yet I live in the gift of their care. Could they have imagined that when my daughter Linden was married, she would choose leaves of maple sugar for the wedding giveaway? Such a responsibility I have to these people and these trees, left to me, an unknown come to live under the guardianship of the twins, with a bond physical, emotional, and spiritual. I have no way to pay them back. Their gift to me is far greater than I have ability to reciprocate. They’re so huge as to be nearly beyond my care, although I do scatter granules of fertilizer at their feet and turn the hose on them in summer drought. Perhaps all I can do is love them. All I know to do is to leave another gift, for them and for the future, those next unknowns who will live here. I heard once that Maori people make beautiful wood sculptures that they carry long distances into the forest and leave there as a gift to the trees. And so I plant Daffodils, hundreds of them, in sunny flocks beneath the Maples, in homage to their beauty and in reciprocity for their gift. Even now, as the sap rises, so too the Daffodils rise underfoot.

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