The Gift of Sugar Maples

Maple syrup season is underway here in Nova Scotia. The pails are hanging in the trees, the taps are drilled and for the serious maple syrup producers, the lines of hose are strung through the forest like a web, all relying on gravity on their way to the sugar shack. The season is looking bleak here as compared to the bumper yield of last year. Winter has been a yo-yo game with unusually mild temperatures in January and very little snow. Mother Nature has been hiccupping her way through winter, dozing off at the controls and forgetting her master plan.

I made maple syrup for several years. It was a labour of love and not even remotely cost effective, but it was an incredibly satisfying endeavour. I called it my spring adventure. I tapped about a dozen trees and protected my pails like a mother hen. The best sound of all was the music of the drip-drip-drip of the sap falling into the pail; a melody all its own. I often stood, leaning against one of the trees, the sound soothing and lovely, on my list of favourite sounds along with the croak of a bullfrog and the jungle voice of the pileated woodpecker and the rustle of birch tree leaves – all gifts.

The yield of my efforts was never more than two- or three-quart jars, but the magic of the transformation was worth every second of sap collection and the many dashes in the dark during a storm to secure my pails. I used my wood stove to boil down the sap, the wood fire devouring the extra moisture in the air. I felt earthy and connected to the past, with a long thread that stretched back to centuries before me. I think of that discovery, of the found knowledge of the wonder of maple trees, the wisdom then passed down generation to generation. Indigenous people in the northeast of this country certainly were the first. Archaeological evidence indicates maple tree sap was being collected long before Europeans arrived on these shores. It is the details of the discovery that intrigues me. Oral histories and legends among Indigenous people tell of the discovery and process, each nation having its own story, just part of the acquired wisdom of survival.

Many Canadians in the northeast of this vast country engage in the hobby of maple sugaring in their own backyards. Maple trees that grow in the open, not having to share their space, can produce fifteen to twenty gallons of sap in a single season. Those trees growing amongst others in a forest setting tend to produce less, about ten gallons. “Gallon for gallon,” says, “[maple syrup] is more expensive than crude oil.”

Sugar maples should be ten inches in diameter before they are tapped, roughly thirty+ years old, depending on its health and circumstances, and in ideal conditions can be tapped for 250 years. There are always the extraordinary among most species and in Pelham, Ontario’s Comfort Maple Conservation Area stands what many believe to be Canada’s oldest sugar maple. In 1975 the tree’s age was estimated at 400-500 years, later earning it the designation of a heritage tree in June of 2000 under the Ontario Heritage Act. The tree boasts a height of more than twenty-four metres and a massive trunk circumference of six metres. The Comfort family purchased the land upon which the tree stands in 1816 and later entrusted the tree’s care to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.

First Nations people have enjoyed the benefits of maple sap for an estimated 9,000 years, the sap’s medicinal and natural remedy qualities held in high regard, sharing the tree’s secrets with early settlers. The running of the sap indicated the battle with winter was over and Indigenous people’s bodies welcomed the restorative qualities of the maple syrup, after a season of struggling with the elements and limited food sources, the sap becoming a symbol of their spirituality and gratitude, their close connection with nature and its abundance.

For most of us, maple syrup is the reassurance that another winter is finding its end. The shovels will soon be stowed away, the mittens and heavy jackets tucked into the backs of closets, as we heave a sigh of relief. Pancakes anyone?