Two Ways to Take
When I stepped into a commercial maple forest for the first time, I thought I had come into the wrong place. The maples were there—gray and leafless in their winter drab—but it was what stretched over the snow between them—the miles of black and blue plastic—that made me uneasy. It wasn’t their ugly straight lines or their artificial tautness that unsettled me. It was the idea of what they were replacing.
I had come to the Northeast from the West to learn all I could about how to make maple syrup. For three months I did all the things a sugarmaker does—tapping, leak checking, sap collecting, boiling—as well as the things a sugarmaker does while waiting—thawing toes, reading manuals, forecasting spring. But I also spent each day acting in two separate relationships with the maple trees. From morning until late afternoon, I maintained a collection web of tubing at a commercial sugarbush of five thousand trees. Before dusk, I returned home and spent the shred of remaining daylight emptying fifty buckets on forty-six trees spread over several acres above the cabin where I lived. In both relationships, I took the sap and boiled it into syrup. But one was more likely to be attended by gratitude, and the other was not.
In my first day of tapping—drilling a hole into the dormant trunk, gently hammering in a spout, and shimmying on the air-tight plastic line—I was told that sucking sap out of a tree by vacuum does not hurt the tree—it only increases the yield. This told me that scientists had studied what would and would not harm a maple tree and developed a list of best known practices for the commercial sugarer. But it did not answer the other question that accreted over the length of the sugaring season: How can sugarmakers show gratitude to their trees?
The Native Americans were the first to take sap from the maples. From the Great Lakes to the Northeast, the sugar harvest, often beginning in March, was welcomed as the Maple Sugar Moon. The flow of sap was the first sign that abundance would return to the northern woods. Everyone participated in the harvest. Men, women, and children traveled to sugar camps, and the groves of maples became their temporary home. Thousands of birch bark troughs—light and strong as woven cattails—were laid beneath trunks. Rocks heated by coals were tucked under hollowed-out logs and, later, brass kettles. In a process that must have seemed like alchemy, the clear sap darkened to the consistency of amber molasses, then hardened to ochre sugar.
The Maple Sugar Moon was an industrious month. The coals burned all night and day, and as long as there was sap dripping, there was work. For the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes, the diluteness of the sap was no mistake. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass and a member of an Anishinaabe tribe, the Potawatomi Nation, tells the story of how Nanabozho, a spirit and trickster of the Anishinaabe, made it so the people had to boil forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Walking through a village one day, Nanabozho found “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 of 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.” For the Anishinaabe and other Native American people, the hard work required of them was half of their pact with the tree. They were taught that gifts that came too easily are gifts that are not cherished.
The settlers saw the Native Americans’ abundance of sugar and wanted it on their tables. And although the Native Americans could show them how to sugar, they could not explain how to value it. At first, the settlers treated the maples like they were disposable, swinging axes squarely into the trunks of the trees to start them flowing. When repeated on the same tree, this form of “tapping” would often kill the tree within five years, but this was at a time when the forests were a limitless wilderness, an unused landscape that pasture had to be carved from. Trees were a nuisance, good only for building. It would be the sugar maple’s commercial value alive—the 2 percent sugar flowing up its veins—that would save it from the ransacking axes of the lumbermen in the late nineteenth century. In the clear cuts left behind, maples set their seed and became the proud fixture of the northeastern forests they are today.
As maples flourished and sugaring technologies refined in the twentieth century, sugaring became accessible to anyone with a hand drill, a pocketful of metal spouts, and a stack of buckets. Tradition and community became attendants of the season. For Vermonters, Town Meeting Day, on the second weekend in March, was the day you were sure to see your neighbors in the morning and return home in the afternoon to slog through soft snow to every tappable maple within walking distance of your shack. A hole would be drilled in each tree and you would watch as the sap pushed against its surface tension, then trickled forth like a stream returning to its bed—filling and finding its way as it went. This was the beginning of the sugarmaker’s relationship with the tree for the year. It was simple, and the most that could be expected was that the sap would flow a little longer than last year.
A few things happen when processes become more complex—they can become easier, yes, but also harder to fix, and the resource you set out to harvest becomes expected, as if its complexity has made it a certainty. At the commercial sugarbush operation, my days were filled with maintaining the plumbing network used to drain the sap from the trees. Gnawed squirrel holes in the tubing were fixed to keep the system’s pressure at twenty-eight pounds. Split PVC pipes were cut and patched together. Spouts, pushed out by the healing tree, were tapped back in.
In the house at the bottom of the hill, where the vacuum whined day and night, sap glugged from the collection network into steel tubs. From here it was pumped automatically under the road to a reverse osmosis machine across the street. The reverse osmosis chemically separated out much of the water, leaving a concentrate that could be fed as fast as coal through a steam engine into the gas-powered six-pan evaporator. In a few hours of boiling, we’d fill three or four fifty-gallon barrels. The syrup was excellent, very refined, but when I tasted it, I couldn’t imagine the place it came from. It was the product of a network, not a tree.
At the end of the day, after walking the plastic lines, I’d return home to roam the dusk, to shadow my steps from yesterday through the snow. Though my legs were tired, I found a lift in my step whenever I approached a tree, eager to peer over the rim of the bucket at the sap I had received. The small steel buckets were poured into plastic five-gallon buckets until they were full and could be carried to a fifty-gallon tub outside the sugar shack. When the fifty-gallon tub filled, I’d boil, filling the two-by-six-foot evaporator pan with sap and burning cut pallets in the firebox below. I’d sit through the evening in the dirt-floored shack and do little more than watch steam rise and fill my nostrils with sweet pungency, throw wood to the forge-like fire, and keep the sap level at least an inch high. At the end of the night, long after midnight, I’d walk home with a gallon of syrup, cradling it as if it held the very substance of life.
When a maple tree becomes a commercial unit, a vehicle designed to deliver a predictable quantity of sap into our collection system, it becomes easier to forget that the sap the maples provide is not free. There is so much we cannot notarize. We forget that the maple trees need to grow for decades until they are ready to tap, and to grow, they need sunlight and nutrients and water and space. And once grown, the tree needs its leaves to photosynthesize and convert sunlight to sugar and send all its excess sugar down to its roots, so it can pull it back up in the still-warming days of spring and burst its buds open again. And it’s then, in the sap’s push towards the buds with the right freeze and thaw conditions, that we remove the sap from the veins of the tree, convert it into syrup, and believe that we’re the only ones who had to work to produce this luxurious sweetness.
Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of the definitive bible of sugaring, The Maple Sugar Book, remind us of the essential function that trees fill in our world: the biological structure of all living organisms on earth is dependent on the chemical structures of sugar—the carbon and hydrogen molecules stitched together—made by plants and trees. This sugar, including the sap being sent up the trunk of the maple tree, is necessary for all life. A tree should be valued as “more than mere vegetation, more than mere firewood. It has a life of its own and is an end in itself. That mankind finds it useful is of secondary importance.” If a maple tree goes untapped, it is only a wasted resource to those who covet its sap as a commodity. But to the Nearings, Kimmerer, and countless other sugarfolk, the maple tree is a provider—a gift—whether or not it gives sap in the spring.
At the end of my first sugaring season, I wondered how I could reciprocate the maple tree’s gift. Kimmerer plants daffodils under the trees that rise from the earth just as the sap is dripping. She meets beauty with beauty. Ethan Greenwood, a New England sugarmaker in the nineteenth century, reciprocated by planting trees—four hundred maple saplings he would never see run sap. “While ever ready to depart, the lover of beautiful trees should act as if he expected to live a thousand years,” he wrote in an 1832 edition of New England Farmer. “Although I shall not live to see them grown very large, yet someone else will, and I hope that whoever may successively occupy the same place hereafter, will not only see them of large size, but have taste and feeling to enjoy their beauty and preserve their usefulness.”
What if, long after you were gone, you were known as the “maple planter,” the one who lined bedraggled roadsides with towering trees? Somewhere in New England, a landholder, a farmer, or perhaps even a sugarmaker has inherited Greenwood’s legacy; his maples have seeded more maples, and today, there may be a flourishing grove.
I decided all I could do was share the gift I was given in turn. I bottled the syrup I made—five gallons of it—in cute half-pints and mailed one to everyone I loved. Each person who received one said it was the richest, darkest, best syrup they’d had and asked if I could please send more.
Of course, there wasn’t more—only the few quarts I’d kept for myself to hold me through until next year’s run.
Photographs are of the Shurtleff farm in North Bridgewater, Vermont, spring of 1940. Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Nicholas Littman has worked as a biological observer on a crab boat in the Bering Sea, ranched in Montana, and tapped maple trees in the Northeast. All these jobs have nudged him a bit closer to finding his vocation, though he knows once he’s found it, it is likely to change. He currently lives in Montana with his wife, where he recently completed an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana. More of his work can be found in Camas: Nature of the West.