Tuesday, March 18, 2014

maple revolution...strange thoughts on the act of decrowning trees

When I first met Jonathan, I could not believe it when I found Aunt Jemima in his refrigerator.  What is this?  I interrogated him, as though I had found lipstick on his collar.

I mean really, have you tasted that foul rot??

But I have won him over to the taste of pure maple syrup. So we are okay.

We are in the midst of sap collection here, and the weather is making it excitingly unpredictable, with the few days of warmth with ample sap flowing into our buckets and then a few days of a freezing temperatures causing the flow to stop.

We here love syrup.  Real syrup.  And especially love it when it has come from our own trees. I think of it as Sense of Place Syrup.  In the summer, we mark the trees, play in their shade and build forts that lean against their trunks.  We speak to them during the winter months as we snowshoe, slide or walk past them on our way to skate on the river below.  We reach out and touch those trees, spend a moment with them, knowing we are going to get up close and personal in a few months.  It is another way that we are modeling the importance of knowing our land, its landscape, and getting our hands into it.

Plus the syrup is just plain delicious.  For us, the process of collecting the sap and boiling it down makes it even sweeter, and makes it syrup with a story.  The fact that we tap trees here on our urban lot, while the cars whizz by just feet from some of the trees, a few drivers perhaps noticing our buckets and being reminded that nature lives here too?  Even better.

And so, despite the fact that I defaced their trunks with blue spray paint to remind me which ones are maples, using their summer leaves to identify them, I am quite protective of these trees.  They are not huge, most only large enough to allow one spout, but they are givers.  And there are stands of smaller trees that we have decided are not yet ready to go into service for us yet.  I look forward to the years ahead, when I can feel just how long we have been here, that we will begin to tap some of these now saplings, then trees.  That will mark our time here, and reflect another era in the very long life of this property.

We know our cast of characters intimately.  The trees that give only a bit of sap, but these drops taste sweeter than the rest.  The sloppy drippers that dribble down their trunks instead of into their buckets.  The ones that will either rip your parka as you crawl through thorns to get to them or slip down muddy banks with a sloshing bucket of sap.  The ones that will likely make a child, who inevitably spills their bucket, cry.  And the ones that are most generous on a sunny day when the warmth hits their trunks early.  Our 16 maple trees have names.

Old Drippy.


Far Out.

Driveway's end.

Or my personal Favorite: I. C. Dead-People.

Elliott's teacher, a knowledgeable sap expert herself, is in on our adoration as well.  She often greets us with a sap-based question, asking us one frozen morning, How's Old Drippy doing today?  We love our trees so.

I was recently alerted to new research, conducted primarily by the University of Vermont, of course, regarding a potential revolution in the maple syrup industry.  The UVM researchers have discovered a process by which maple saplings can produce as much sap for harvesting as mature trees.  These saplings can be planted plantation style, in densely packed rows on level and easily accessible land, a technique that contrasts significantly with the traditional approach of tapping mature trees far out in the wilds, demanding ingenious methods of collection and hauling.

And then?

image from vt.digger.org, photo by Sally McCay/UVM

The horror.

The thought of topless densely placed maple saplings all in a row with caps and tubes coming out of them frankly gives me the heebie jeebies.  And makes me think of some dark scene from an alien movie, humans all lying on beds with tubes and monitors and beeps coming out of them.  They are what The Matrix calls batteries; while their minds live a virtual life, these people's bodies deteriorate from lack of use.  Ok.  A bit dark, right?  I'm just sayin...

So let's go here instead.  This process.  It is farming plantation style versus wild harvesting. It is kind of like turning a sapling into an annual, or rather, a seven-annual since you cannot start the process until the sapling is seven years old. Putting a sapling in the ground and watering it and caring for it and watching it grow.  Then lopping it off and vacuuming out it's fruit, or juice, or whatever.

Is it just me or is anyone else thinking about The Giving Tree here?

I am not really sure what it is that distinguishes collecting from saplings as worse than putting vegetable seeds in the ground, only to pull the plants out to eat them.  It's basically all just harvesting. What, besides bark and the ability to remain standing when it is windy, differentiates between the value of the carrot plant and a maple sapling?

Perhaps it is something about the child labor feel to it.  I mean, Elliott is a seven year old sapling.  Which makes me the age that is considered a mature tree.  Though I may be asking him to bring his dishes to the sink and put his dirty discarded socks in the laundry basket and open the backdoor to let the dogs out from time to time, I think Elliott is a bit young to be put into domestic service.  And really, a carrot was going to die in the Maine winter even if we had left it in the ground.

Each summer we plant our seeds.  We take care of them with water and sun and weeding. 

And then we yank that vegetable out of the ground, leaving nothing behind.  Not even possible roots for regrowth.  And we eat it.  Raw.

I was happy to learn that there are methods for not killing the saplings that are being developed.  Which is good, because I was becoming disturbed by the likelihood that the trees could not survive this process.  The apparatus that vacuums the sap can be removed and the crown will regrow, though eventually the growth of the tree will not be able to keep up with how much height must be removed each spring to reattach the apparatus.  There are alternative methods being studied, including coppicing, a process by which two trunks are encouraged to grow from the same trunk, allowing the collection to happen to only one trunk each year while the other recovers.  And then it is decrowned.

Ok.  I jest.  And I truly do support the idea of developing ways we can make agriculture sustainable so that we do not lose touch with our own food sources.  And I get that the yield of a harvest from a plantation style sap collection would allow many farms to yield a better profit and get real maple syrup on more people's tables.  It also apparently resolves some pest management issues and allows farmers to recover more quickly from tree loss.  That's important.  Very important.

The wild harvesting versus farming approach.  We do a bit of both here on our little urban homestead.  We collect the fruits and berries and sap from the established landscape and also put in a large garden, harvesting the plants we seed each year.  The idea of saplings being planted for their product and not for their very tree-ness.  It makes me think of the bees and beekeeping we do here, in the person-made hives, rather than all Pooh style climbing up a tree, and getting stung while I dip my furry paw into a feral bee colony.

There are lot of ways to stay connected to our food.  And some are old and we treat them with reverence and the traditions evoke a nostalgia for the old ways of doing things.

But I am just saying that we here, we love our storied syrup, and the trees that give it to us.

Then I realize.  That's the difference.  It is the love of the trees, our trees, here.  The ones that exist here because previous trees dropped their seeds and these trees grew.  Not because we wanted them, or wanted something from them.  But because that it is how nature developed here.  And so, for these trees, we will take from them, use them, play under them, but only in ways that do not harm them.

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