Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Discovering sap

Sapcicle on a broken boxelder twig
What: There are lots and lots of stories concerning the origins of sugaring. The stories have grown over many generations and may or may not resemble the original tellings of the story. As was pointed out to me by Judy Dow, basketmaker and member of Oyate, an organization that protects and preserves indigenous stories and culture, many of the stories white people tell about Indians sugaring have been bastardized, distorted, misappropriated, and anglicized. In their new forms, they now tell the stories of colonialization. They may not even reflect how sugaring was discovered in the first place or adequately/accurately portray the culture from which the story may have originated.

Websites for sugaring operations are quick to root the practice in indigenous folklore (whether it be the Abenaki story of Gluskape diluting sugar, the Haudenosaunee story of the chief sticking his hatchet in a tree, or another story of red squirrels chewing branches). I tend to be skeptical of the credibility of websites that generalize these stories and say things like, "The Indians made maple syrup. They would take a hatchet and cut a gash in the tree and insert a wooden or bark shim. The sap poured off into pots. The trees were bigger back then, and must have had plenty of sap. The Indians concentrated the sap by dropping hot rocks into the pot to boil off some of the water." Adding to my mistrust of these sources is that I'm always skeptical until I try something myself to prove (or disprove) it or observe it myself (like watching a red squirrel "tap" a sugar maple at Rock Point and come back later to eat the icicles and lick the wound sites).

Like most things, I'm sure there are elements of truth in all of the stories we've inherited about maple sugaring. My own sugaring origin story, if I didn't already know about sugaring might have begun last week when I started seeing all these rotting white pines laying on the forest floor in Centennial Woods. My attention was drawn to the down slope side, where almost all the stumps had icicles oozing out. The icicles were all a beautiful amber color with these dark hair-like strands curling up on the bottom. I tasted a few and they had an almost coffee-like flavor. They were okay, but not great. On my way back home, I spotted a boxelder that had been crushed by a careless UVM facilities truck, leaving many branches broken (see image at top). At the wound sites, icicles hung down. Each icicle had the sweetest droplet of sugar water beaded up at the tips.

I paddled the Winooski River with Brian on Saturday and at one point we paddled under a silver maple tree yawning over the gentle river. From some past flood event a few of the lowest branches had been broken off. The sap had been oozing out of the broken twigs and in the cold had formed icicles. Brian and I enjoyed sucking the sweet icicles off the branches. With such a sweet surprise, I'm sure any curious mind would have wondered what other trees would ooze a sweet sap and how could they harvest more of it. I'd start breaking branches, bending them over to collect in little containers. I don't know that I would rock boil them, but I'd drink nothing but sap water for the first month or two of spring when it was flowing in the maple genus. I'll bet harvesting sap from twigcicles would have come before "tapping" the trees, or harvesting in some other way from the bole, or trunk, of the tree.

Where: Broken branches everywhere

Other notes: Maples are still the only species to be flowing so far.

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