Something Rich to Be Shared

Sap dripping into a bucket; Chrissie drilling a hole for a spile into a maple tree

I had a feast a few weeks ago with friends on a day where the high reached 8 F and the low dipped to minus 18 F. We enjoyed raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, hash browns, scrambled eggs, French toast, and to top it all off, maple syrup from the farm. And while the sweetness filled our bellies and warmed our cores, it also reminded me that one of the sweetest times of the year is here!

As you’re reading this, our maple sugaring operation at the farm is well under way. The spiles are in place, the buckets are filling, the evaporator is running hot, and the sweet aroma of maple is billowing out of the sugar shack. 

I used to not be the biggest fan of winter. Sure, it’s cozy around the holidays, but the stint of cold from January through March always got me a bit down. As I’ve grown older, though, and have gotten a few more winters under my belt, my perspective on this time of year has shifted from dread and blues to a sweet curiosity and excitement—and this is thanks, in part, to the maple trees themselves.

Kari hanging sap buckets; Kari preparing to pour sap into the sap drum on the truck.

This past year, all summer long, while we were planting beets and harvesting lettuce and seeding radishes and weeding carrots and watering the greenhouse and mulching the hedgerows under the heat of the sun, the maple leaves were busy turning that sunlight into sugars. While some sugars gave the maples the energy they needed to keep growing, the excess sugars were sent downwards—through the trees’ phloem tissue just below their bark—into the roots. Through the rest of the long summer, crisp fall, and cold winter, that bounty of sugars has been stored in the roots of the maples as starches. 

Fast forward to this moment in time! The magic of these next few weeks is that all of those starches below the ground are being converted back into sugars and are rushing up towards the tiny maple buds that are hungry to open in time for spring. And with the abundance of sugars now flowing, we are able to tap into the maple trees and taste just a sliver of their sweetness. 

Chrissie pouring sap into the drum; Anna adding wood to the evaporator.

One ritual for a lot of us on the farm at this time of year is to read chapter seven, “Maple Sugar Moon,” from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which I will share:

“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).”

Anna testing the syrup on the evaporator; the first finished batch of syrup for the season

Kimmerer continues, “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.”

At a time of year when it can be bitter, cold, dark, and icy, the teachings of the maples remind us that there is still wonder to behold. These trees have been preparing for this very moment since last spring and are resilient beings with sophistication in every cell. We are reaping the benefits of their slow and meticulous work of turning golden sunshine into food. And it is through our care and our working together that we are able to transform such a gift into something rich to be shared. So as maple sugaring season kicks off, here’s to the possibility and responsibility that lie ahead. And here’s to the sweetness of this gift, to another year of learning and growing, and to continuing to care for one another.

Photo credit: Tony Rinaldo Photography LLC