Maple Sugaring
Maple Sugaring

Maple Sugaring

Last year, for the first time in thirty years or so, I set up a new sugaring pan in a new forest. What I found most interesting about the process was really questioning each aspect of the set up in relation to what it is I’m looking for in making the syrup. I don’t do it for money, or to win any contests for grade “A” syrup. Yes, I do it for all the obvious reasons like having good mineral rich local sweetness for my family and friends. But we also keep bees so it’s not just about subsistence or healthy sugar. Ultimately, I admit I do it for something beyond what’s reasonable. I do it for the magic. For the excuse to sit out in the bush for weeks and just be there for the flush of life coming back to the land and awakening Her.
The truth is, Gathering maple syrup saves me every year. It is such a profound ritual of renewal. As in many profound rituals there is a blending of nature and culture, as well as the masculine and feminine. The life coming back into the erect trees (the embodiment of masculine virility), taping into that vertical life force, to receive the sweet water of the Goddess. Every year for more then three decades I’ve had the privilege to bathe in the co-creative essence of the ‘traditional’ sugaring process, which for me is in its most basic terms; collecting the sap by hand and boiling it down outside over a wood fire.
Maple sap spigot made from hollowed out Staghorn Sumac stalk
Maple sap spigot made from hollowed out Staghorn Sumac stalk
I’m thankful that when I first started sugaring, out of economic necessity, I did it the cheapest way possible. Thirty some years ago ‘industry’ was just starting to move into the realm of syrup making with propane fired evaporators and the use of plastic tubing with vacuum pumps to suck the sweet sap out, that had been freely given. These are all in common use today. Like industry always seems to do, it’s turned what was a simple and gentle practice where we worked with the Earth, into something heartless and exploitive. The industry also brought in sugar or ‘brix’ testing, and pressurized filtration all in the name of quality. All of which are not the least bit necessary.
Sugaring is an art just like cooking. While there is precision needed, which can be achieved through measurement, the outcome will never be as finessed or authentic as when it’s done through intuition and our bodies. When we feel our way instead of measuring, we’re inside life and the moment, not outside looking in. One is art the other artifice. Part of what makes one person’s syrup different than another is how far they take the sugar down. Some go a little over and others a little under, it’s all about the feel of it. While the stations on the sugar line are: light syrup, heavy syrup (which is the standard 66 brix for preservation), fudge and sugar, there is much space in between these stops. After a while, just like the old pro’s you can tell the sugar content just by the way the hot syrup moves in a spoon or bubbles in the pan. Traditional sugaring practice involved very basic technology; buckets, barrels and pan. So, I felt that was all I needed.
When I started there was a fair amount of old sugaring equipment floating around in the Upper Ottawa Valley. But I heard from a few people that all the boiling pans and buckets had been soldered with lead back in the day. And before aluminum began to be used, the old spigots (taps) were also partially made with lead for its softness, so the tap would ‘fit’ into the hole in the tree. So I followed the old way, but avoided the old equipment. I found discarded plastic buckets and large coffee tins, and made spigots from hollow Sumac branches. I used a discarded bath tub, raised up like a pot over a fire with a tin skirt, to boil down the sap I collected. Just like cheaper household cooking pots, bathtubs are electromagnetically porcelained so it worked perfectly for many years. To adapt it for this purpose all you do need to do is replace the rubber drain washer with a leather one that you can easily make yourself.
Before prayerfully tapping the Maples by hand with my grandfather’s auger drill, I conversed for many days (if not years) with the trees getting to know them all. The people inside the trees are all different, just like us. And they are the ones you are honouring, that must be given love. I collected the sap in an barrel that fit on a wide sled I’d made with old water-skis for pulling through the bush in deep snow. I boiled, stored and did everything outside, with no sugar shack. Every few years I’d move my minimalist set-up, leaving the trees to fully heal and the forest where I’d been, enriched, cleaned up and looking like no one had been there. Then, I’d tap new trees and clean out all the deadwood over a couple of years for firing the pan, in the new spot. At the end of the season when the snow had melted I’d spread out all my ash under the Sugar Maples in the area.
Despite what people might say, tapping trees does hurt the trees. Often the following season you can see a corresponding dead branch, which has been sacrificed because of the diminished spring flow and hardening that happens around the wound. When people follow the industry standard and use vacuum tubing, as well as putting multiple taps in each tree, these damaging effects will be multiplied. When I started to feed the trees with ash, they didn’t lose branches and seemed to only get stronger. The acidic forest soil thrives when small amounts of ash are added, mimicking a small fire.
Approaching the creation of a new Maple sugaring set up, and now having funds to have more choice in the way I would set up, I had the opportunity to more consciously think out each aspect of this traditional practice again. For the most part I chose to do it the same way, except I did get a six foot steel pan made, for ‘better efficiency’ but I still insist on using buckets because I love the directness of the process. I had the vision of hind site in making these choices, having seen dozens of set-ups and having made syrup for more than three decades.
But when someone for the first time is approaching learning the art of making maple syrup, like when we approach many traditionally based practices, (building, making things, gardening, herbalism, fishing, hunting…) choosing the traditional or most Earth friendly way is much harder than it sounds. This is because modern technology and industry, and the concept of “efficiency” have screwed up our instinctual path for re-connecting with the Earth. And these ‘improvements’ have taken us away from our ancestral path. Our spirits are wise though, so even while we are lost we have moments of awakening. This is how we were first driven by our instinct to learn and practice traditional skills or arts. But for most of us now there is no (non-industrial) models or mentors to follow. So, we look on the internet and defer to the most represented authority, which is usually a colonial and or industrial version of what was once an art.
This is where we so easily stray off the path because we go into these old ways not knowing our left from our right. While the path of our instinct might be true, if we look outside our own wisdom, we can take two wrong turns real quick. The first mistake happens, not through any fault of character but because of how we’re taught. We are taught to always look outside of ourselves rather than to wait for a deeper knowledge. This knowledge is written in our bones. Our bodies still remember these ancient relationships. And when we meet the players, in this case the Maple trees and the fire, the rest will come to us if we let it and give it time and attention. It’s so beautiful that we get to work for that knowledge right there, in the moment. And when it comes, we’ve earned it and own it in a way you never can from being informed from outside of ourselves.
Ironically, as we reach for power through someone else’s knowledge we give away our own. When we give it away we lose responsibility, and then often in that lost moment, rather than just being silent, we grasp for control.
The second mistake happens even more easily, coming precisely at the moment when we think we’ve found our way because an authority of some kind is telling us how to do it. What we need to remember is that the authorities (guilds and boards) are of course unconsciously marketing their way of doing the traditional activity to float their own boat. And as a collective they are very convincing, unless you know differently. Unless you’ve seen it from another perspective. They’ve been at it a long time so they hit all the right notes for us to be unquestioningly convinced. You read a book or more likely these days just watch a youtube video and suddenly we get a vicarious rush that makes us feel that we, like the instructor, are all knowing in how to do this art we’ve never done before. Seldom do we think about alternative ways of doing the industrial task, or their motivation for teaching it the way they do. So, we end up practicing this ancient Earthbound art it in an industrialized and “efficient way” using ‘superior’ modern equipment.
Most of us just run with it, never looking back or asking what might be lost in the process? Or, what the cost is of making things more efficient might be? While we imagine we’re different, the reality is we all live in a capitalistic industrial culture. So, the value of traditional practices is almost always assessed in terms of its efficiency and economic value, not for its qualities. Mostly traditional ways are considered ‘backward’, and have been endlessly ‘improved’ on, to the point where they’re barely recognizable.
In bowing to the authorities we’re looking the wrong way. So we read the signs backwards and start down the wrong path, convinced we know where we’re going. Then time passes and we notice the path took us right back into to our domineering colonial life further convincing us that the industrial way is the only way there is. Our instincts reach for something to save us, but our modern approach corrupts the relationship before healing can happen.
If we can approach these old arts with understanding and respect, I think they can be ‘improved’ using some modern technology, without killing the magic. But we mustn’t let our modern understanding and reasoning override our instinctive longing. If we stick with our longing it can act as a guide to get us through the industrial minefield, but we must stay focused. Ask if each piece of your process feels right, or if there is another more Earthbound way to do it.
From the very first moments of thinking about these co-creative traditional activities, we must approach them in the most sensitive and thoughtful way. Just like when we’re out in the bush following a map, if we lose our path from the start it makes it nearly impossible to find our way at any point there after. Coming from a modern mind set of ‘efficiency’ and moving forward with a plan, as most sane people would, is like running through a minefield.
It seems absolutely every way you could have direct interaction with the Earth has been partially co-opted by industry. But industry itself is not the problem, it’s just an extension of a much older patriarchal, colonial view of the world. When the ancient arts are co-oped by industry, these sacred life sustaining practices lose their juice. What was a magical art becomes just a secular ‘hobby’ with no connection to the sacred Earth. Even with non-utilitarian activities like hiking, swimming or boating, in which the “re-creational” nature of the activity was at one time understood as central, our plans, technology and marketing have taken over so that nature becomes just the background upon which we play in our fancy clothes with our fancy toys.
If we want to find our way back to the sacred path, we must learn to question all our interactions with nature, even if they’re deemed by authorities to be environmentally friendly. Many companies like MEC have this image of being environmentally friendly, but when I look at the vast majority of stuff in the store all I see is petroleum based toxic landfill. This questioning can happen, as it has with our food production systems. Our consumer dollars are our real voting tools.
This isn’t to say we must all become fundamentalists. Although for a time taking a hard line might be understandable, and this is what I did. But ultimately we all need to grow up, learn to be flexible and to live and work with others in the present moment. Holding ourselves above others, who for economic or cultural reasons are unable to live up to our standards isn’t going to help us move forward in any way.
Finding the sacred path can be challenging and following it even harder so I’d like to talk in some more detail about this one example of making Maple Syrup. How the forest is chosen and treated, how the trees are chosen, when to tap, how we tap, how we collect the sap, how we boil it down, how we store it, how we use it. There are many choices for each of these questions. I feel most of these are common sense but in truth there is a myriad of options and reasons for each choice. If I wrote them all down with all my reasonings I’d end up with another book, like I did with the The Story of the Madawaska Forest Garden and The Hundred Mile House, which I’m working on now.
So here are few of my main choices and how they relate to traditional and conventional practice. Most folks these days have miles of plastic tubing running through the forest, or if they have buckets they collect sap using a snowmobile or ATV with a cart. They tap the trees with an electric drill and they boil the sap down using a large evaporator heated with gas, or might use wood but often with a blower to increase heat. And they make their syrup inside a shed or shack. It all seems innocent enough. They still end up with ‘homemade’ maple syrup that tastes good. But with each choice made for efficiency they cut off the physical opportunities, that we were originally driven toward, and that keep us connected to the deeper spiritual reality of these miraculous co-creative traditional practices.
If we look by contrast at how First Nations people traditionally made Maple sugar we see a very different way. Generally, the Maple trees were gashed with a stone axe through the bark to the ‘sapwood’. They made V shape, much like is seen when collecting sap from rubber trees. It was done on the straight or lee side of the tree, so a small stick jammed in at the bottom of the V would draw all the sap out to a drip point.
There would be arguments for and against this seemly more destructive approach. But I can attest when trees are gashed like that they heal very quickly as opposed to the tap holes which can take a couple years or more to heal. And in that time infection or pathogens can enter deeper into the tree.
The sap would then fall into a Birch bark bucket, sealed with pine pitch (softened with ash and fat), nestled in the snow. The People waited until the sap really started to flow, a week or two into the season because they knew the sugar content was higher then so the whole process would only take half the time. This delay relative to modern view of tapping early to “catch the whole flow”, gave the tree that first vital flush of sap. I’ve always waited a week or so longer to tap.
The maple sap was collected daily and put in a big V shaped wooden trough made from a tree trunk like a dug-out canoe. When not in use this ‘pan’ was turned over at the site, off the ground, and left from year to year. They collected and left the sap in the trough overnight or for many nights, during which time much of the water in the sap that migrates to the top and freezes, was simply lifted off. Some sap was lost in this process but a lot of time was saved in the boiling down process. And while we might say ‘some sugar was lost by that method’, it’s not lost to the forest. The sugars in sap-ice that melt with the snow into the forest floor increases the biological activity in the soil and feeds the trees. This nightly freezing process in the V shaped dug out is genius. The night’s ice that forms on the surface of the sap expands slightly and this forces the ice to rise up in the V trough, making it easy to lift off.
I use this same technique with my plastic buckets, but because of the bucket shape I sometimes have to wait for the days melt to start before I can to get my ice out. Making maple syrup is roughly forty parts sap boiled down to one part syrup or half that in maple sugar. This freezing process can get rid of more than half the water. And because the sugar actually migrates out of the freezing material, even more time and fuel is saved.
After freezing out what they could over many nights the remaining 50-30% of the sap wasn’t boiled over an open flame, in a hide or birch pot as we might imagine, but rather in the trough itself with red hot ‘cooking’ stones. This sap wasn’t taken down to syrup (which would have been hard to store and transport) but taken right through to the sugaring point. This ‘fudge’ was then whipped with a twig whisk into sugar as it cooled so as to crystylize with air in it, instead as hard candy. The sugar could be stored, traded and used more easily. This original way of collecting and making syrup worked co-creatively with every aspect of the trees, the environment and the elementals. And because of all this, like traditional gardening, it was extremely efficient and ecological sound.
Each of our choices is informed by how we see the natural world and what we think we’re doing in it. And not surprisingly those choices take us down different roads, even though on the surface of things, everyone sugaring or gardening appears to be doing the same thing. The First Nations approach grew out of the land, learning the art of sugaring from the beavers and their cousins the porcupines. And through an intimate relationship with the magical paper birch. A traditional indigenous person would not have been thinking about the economics or the environmental factors of sugaring as we understand them, but was thinking of something akin to both these. The primary difference is they were approaching the activity from a completely different direction. Considerations of new ways or efficiency would be placed way down on the list and measured with their elder brothers the Maples, who were feeding them. Tapping late, slashing the trees, or throwing out some sugar with the ice, which might seem overly destructive or wasteful to us, was a co-evolved, sustainable part of the practice which came from the land and their ancestors. I imagine they didn’t have choices like we do. The way was taught as tradition, revealed to your ancestors from the land, and you followed, no choice. Very few of us, if any, including indigenous folks, are coming from this perspective any more, we all have many choices now.
When I set up I use a metal bit to tap, metal or plastic eco-taps, used-plastic-buckets and barrels, and a steel pan I had made locally. And I use a chainsaw to cut my wood, but no vehicles or animals to collect the fire wood or the sap. Like most people I’m pressed for time now, so I can’t spend weeks cutting firewood for sugaring. And I’d love to have fifty or a hundred birch buckets all perfectly water-tight but I don’t have the time or space. It would also be nice to have a hundred hand made sumac spigots but again they only last a few years so it would take many days every year just to keep them up and make new ones. I have cut fire wood by hand, made Birch buckets, and Sumac taps, so I at least know what those missing pieces are, that were part of the original ritual for collecting sap and making sugar. I justify using the plastic buckets and barrels because they are used, and having been used for a couple years before I save them from the dump, they’ve hopefully finished off-gassing. I imagine by finding and using only previously used buckets and barrels that I’m not causing further manufacturing of them. It would be most time efficient for me to have plastic hosing but I wouldn’t be able to get that free or even second-hand. More importantly, in setting up a tube system I know I would sacrifice the essential ritual of collecting the sap. Everyday those of us using buckets for sap, do the rounds to our living saints, and they deliver. Everyday we go to each tree and look up at her branches in thankfulness, and then down into a gallon or so of clear healing elixir. In collecting this very real, heavy blood of the tree we are aware in a physical way, what tubing negates. Feeling the weight of the sap each day makes it much easier to be thankful to each tree that is feeding us. This connection between us and the tree is divine. When we drink their sap were are being nourished directly from nature’s divine heart.
By collecting firewood (deadwood from the forest around the pan), as opposed to bringing wood in or using petroleum of some kind (propane is the standard these days), I’m not only light years ahead in environment terms (no mining of non-renewable resources, processing or transportation costs), but I truly get to steward the forest as I cut out standing deadwood. Leaving ‘cavity’ trees, and buggy food trees too rotten for burning. In most of the world, fire suppression has and is changing the forest’s character for the worse in a couple of ways. The trace minerals and the neutralizing effect that fires have on acidic northern soils are all part of the evolved soil structure. Without fire, the forest is deficient in potassium and trace minerals found in ash. The weakened trees are then much more prone to disease. Regular fires (which happened on average every 25 years in this area) reduce tree pathogens as well. Also, if there are no small fires the ‘forest debris’ builds up. Then, when there is a fire it’s unnaturally big, hot and aggressive. These fires, which ironically were caused by fire suppression, kill everything growing, even the older trees that were designed to withstand the perennial fire cycles.
Beyond all reasoning, sugaring for me is about being there, sitting quietly and tending the fire, listening to the light drumming of sap drips in recently emptied morning buckets. Feeling the weight of the buckets; carrying it to the barrels and pan. And, the magic of boiling the sap with wood. The incredibly clear, clean air and physical labor are part of the well tended alchemy that, after days of boiling manifests as golden elixir, sweet as life Herself. All of these gifts brought to us from this traditional co-creative practice, beyond the syrup itself, are so easily lost in the efficiency of the modern way.