Thursday, April 18, 2013

Indigenous produce

The current of acer saccharum


Rain fell upon snow - the drops descending from a heavy, grey sky. And when they struck the trees they stuck and collected to build limbs of ice. In the woods the maples, basswoods, birch, and oaks stood in transparent tombs of wet crystal. By night they seized and froze in winter's dying grip, by day they dripped silver; in vertical streams the ice trees thawed under a strong southern sun. The bark beneath weathered both extremes, peering out from below its weeping cast to watch as the men came and went.

They came in pairs, the men. They trudged through the old crusted snow of woodlands with armloads of hard metal tools. They took turns choosing trees; each played judge and jury both. From tree to tree they worked, breaking the rotted ice away from those trunks deemed large enough, leaving those who were yet too young. They skipped oak and aspen, ignored basswood and firs. These men had one prize in mind. Their quest was for only the sweetest drink among the hardwoods - the current of Acer saccharum - sugar maple's sap.

With their iron tools they bore into sugar maple's trunks. Into these wounds they placed their concave beaks, their metal straws to sap on maple's stores. Man's beaks were unlike other creatures though. Once pounded into maple's pulp, man's beaks stayed put day and night, for as long as it took maple's lifeblood to run bitter, and disinterest the sugar-craving tongue of mankind.

Once each year sugar maple made this tribute to man. Before the new year of spring, maple offered her sweetest gift, the store of her winter roots. Her sap ran as sugar water when the birds returned to seek nesting, when bears crawled from their dens, when geese came back to the river water, and when squirrels began to emerge on the oak ridges. These signs the men had read, and so their thirst returned each year.


The men brought fire to the wood as well. They stoked flame to roaring tongues and contained them within another of their great metal tools - a box for flame. Stoked with the dry wood of other trees long dead, the men put maple's sweet water into a cask over the blaze. They kept the orange flame happy for entire days, always working in the sun's light when their iron beaks drank the swiftest. In this way they made large clouds of steam clot the thawing air, and below the steam, after a long while, the men would find what they were seeking.

Maple's own water, once as clear as spring-fed creeks, now became dark and brown. The men poured their new nectar into containers and took them from the woods to their homes. In this way they repeated their harvest for as many days as maple allowed - until the sweetest of trees turned bitter. Then the men pulled their iron beaks away and left maple to rest for another year.

In this way, and ways more primitive before it, man learned to pull syrup from the trees that grow in the north. To this day the relationship remains. Sugar maple's agreement with man is special in this, for most agricultural was brought to the new world from the old. Instead, this yield is one of few indigenous ones, uniquely North American.

“Nature has a surer plan than mortals can devise.”
- Janet Morris

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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