How Making Maple Syrup Keeps Native Culture Alive
March in the Adirondack foothills. A feel in the air of things starting to stir. Days growing longer. The first light through the windows of my cabin on the southeast flank of Glass Factory Mountain waking me earlier each day.
I step outside, bare feet melting the gray frost on the deck. Spread my arms and breathe deep as I go through a series of tai chi moves. And though the land is still caught in the winter chill—10 degrees Fahrenheit this morning—it’s as if the cold cannot cut as deep now. By noon it will be 40 degrees.
It’s time to tap the maple trees.
Sogalikas. The Moon of Making Maple Syrup. Or, translated more literally from the Abenaki language, the Flowing Moon. For it is now Sigwaniwi, the melting away time: when the moisture of Earth is drawn up by trees as they awaken to the lengthening of the days, snow melting from the warmth of the sun.
There are traditional tales of how making sweet syrup from the trees came to be. The simplest is that a squirrel chewed into the trunk of a maple. Someone, most likely from one of our northeastern Algonquin nations, had left a basket by the base of that tree and the flowing sap filled up that basket. Not a woven basket, of course. One that was made as we still make watertight baskets today by folding pliable bark—most likely birch—into a basket shape and pegging or sewing it together.Nowadays, we can actually buy maple water in grocery stores. But though I suppose it’s good, it is not the same.
When that person tasted the water in her basket, she found that it was sweet. And then when that water was used for cooking, it was sweeter still.
The first white man to comment on making maple syrup was John Smith in the seventeenth century. He wrote in his journals about how the Powhatan women collected the sap from the trees by making a V-shaped gouge with an axe and putting a bark basket beneath it. After which they poured the sap into wooden troughs. Each morning they would take the ice off the top of the trough and throw it away. They assured him that the sugar did not freeze, and, indeed, Smith noted, the sap got sweeter each time they skimmed off the ice. After doing this several times they’d then boil the rest down to maple syrup.
It does take a lot of sap to make syrup. The rule of thumb is about forty to one—forty quarts of sap for one of syrup. One way it was done before metal evaporators was to put the syrup into a dugout canoe and then drop in red-hot rocks.
I remember the first time I almost tasted maple sap. I was with my grandparents and only five years old. We’d pulled up to the Ferrys’ house. Three elderly cousins of my grandmother’s. A brother and two sisters together, none of them ever married, all of them in their eighties. Ethel, Edna, and Pearly.
Edna was the one who came clomping up to the car. She was wearing knee boots, one of their late father’s old red wool coats, a scarf wrapped around her head. Her cheeks were as red from the cold as that scarlet scarf. She had a gray metal bucket in her hands. She’d just unhooked it from the maple closest to the road.
My window was rolled down and she leaned through it.
“Have a taste,” she said, “it’s sweet as a spring day.
I shrank back in my seat with my hands over my mouth. I was shy back then and a little afraid of anything new. Especially Edna decked out in those crimson colors.
Thus my first taste of maple sap straight from the tree was delayed. Though not that long. After we’d all gone inside the big old house, I waited for my chance. And while everyone was talking, I slipped out the back door to another tree where I’d spied a bucket hanging from one of those hooks I later learned to call a spile. I cautiously unhooked it. There was only an inch or so of sap in the bucket and it wasn’t too heavy for me. I looked around to make sure I wasn’t being watched, then lifted it up and drank. I mostly soaked the front of my shirt, but for that cold, wet, and sticky taste, it was worth it. It was as sweet—in a subtle way—as the breath of a spring day. I hung the bucket back up. No one noticed me slipping back in, even though the back door did slip out of my wet hands and slam.
All five of those old people were looking at the ceiling as I crept back into the room, my grandfather stifling a cough that sounded a little like a laugh. Nor was my soggy condition mentioned all the way home. Though my grandmother did remark—as soon as we got out of the old blue Plymouth—that I might want to change my clothes.
“Seeing as how, Sonny, you seem to have got some snow on you—in some inadvertent way.”
Which remark set my grandfather to coughing again.
I imagine that by now the sap house behind the Onondaga Nation School (ONS) has been made ready for this year’s flow. ONS is one of my favorite schools, right smack in the middle of the Onondaga Reservation that is itself the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy. (I’d say that Onondaga is right next to Syracuse, New York—except the opposite is true. Onondaga, that place among the hills, was here centuries before any Greek name was grafted onto the land. Further, a good part of the city of Syracuse is on land still owned by the Onondaga Nation and leased to the city.)They just lay on their backs, drinking maple syrup, grass growing up around them, no crops being grown, their villages falling apart.
I remember the first time I visited the ONS sap house where Native students, from kindergarten on up, take part in that old ceremony of gathering and boiling down that renews the bond between the people and the maple—the Leader, the Chief of the Trees, as it is called. It’s at this time of year when the Haudenosaunee people give Thanksgiving ceremonially to the maple trees.
Dewasentah, Alice Papineau, clan mother of the Eel Clan escorted me back there more than three decades ago.
“This is medicine,” she said, handing me a spoonful of new syrup, its color as golden as pure sunlight. “It’s a gift from the maple tree. Drink this and you’ll be in good health all the year. So we say Nya:weh, thanks to the maple tree.”
And that was what I said before tasting that syrup.
“Nya:weh. Thank you for this gift.”
Maple syrup is the first harvest of the year. To taste it, to drink it, is to feel your body flowing like those trees. The nutrients in that sap are truly beneficial, A spring tonic to cleanse you of all that has built up over the winter. Nowadays, we can actually buy maple water in grocery stores. But though I suppose it’s good, it is not the same.
At our Ndakinna Education Center in Greenfield Center, New York, where we teach outdoor awareness and traditional survival skills, we host small groups of college students from several different schools. They spend a week with us, working around the property while we teach classes and provide them with the opportunity to learn about our northeastern Native traditions of survival and respect for the natural world.
One year when we had such a group, we were making maple syrup from trees on our nature preserve. We had a big pot over a gas burner cooking down the sap on the small open-air stage behind the center where we did presentations. We’d planned to turn the burner off that night, but the eager college kids said they’d take care of it for us.
“Okay,” my son Jim said. “Just keep a close eye on it.”
The next morning when we arrived at the center we found a group of distraught students waiting, heads down like puppies expecting to be disciplined.
“We’re so sorry, we are so sorry, we are so sorry,” they chanted—a bunch of penitent pilgrims.
They’d been playing video games and forgot all about the cooking sap. Not only had it boiled down to a black mass, it melted through the pan.
Jim took a look out the window.
“So,” he said, indicating the small plume of smoke rising from our outdoor stage, “are you going to put out that fire in the floor now?”
That produced another chorus. This time it was “Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” as they rushed outside to pour water on the smoldering hole in the thick planks.
Jim and I watched their bucket brigade. Then we listened, not saying anything as they kept apologizing.
“It’s okay,” Jim said when there was a pause in the recrimination chorus. It’s just a pot and a few planks.” He paused and then shrugged. “After all, you did not succeed in burning down the Ndakinna Education Center.
That attempt at humor produced another round of mea culpas.
When they paused for breath, Jim looked at them and nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Would you feel better if we yelled at you?”
That finally got a smile out of them, and later that day they showed up with a brand-new cooking pot they had purchased for us—twice as good as the one they’d melted.What I do is just the simple stuff. Drill the hole, tap in the spile (a hollow metal spike), hang the bucket or maybe a plastic jug with a lid on it.
My favorite traditional story about maple syrup is the one told among our various Algonquin nations—from the Wabanaki of New England to the Anishinabe of the Great Lakes region.
Gluskonba, who made himself from the dust that sprinkled from the hands of the Great Mystery, was the first one to walk around in the shape of a human. He often helped the people and had the power to change things. It is said that he originally made the maple trees so that they would give the people pure maple syrup all year-round. All you had to do was break a twig and pure golden sweetness came dripping out.
But the time came when people stopped doing anything other than drinking maple syrup. They just lay on their backs, drinking maple syrup, grass growing up around them, no crops being grown, their villages falling apart.
When Gluskonba saw this, he was not pleased. He poured water into the tops of the maple trees and the people all sat up, spitting out that water, asking where their sweet drink had gone.
“You have become lazy,” Gluskonba said. “This was too easy for you. From now on to get maple syrup you must gather sap, pour it into wooden canoes. You must gather dry wood to make fires and heat stones to drop into the sap and boil it down. It will take forty buckets of sap to get one bucket of syrup. And so that you will remember to appreciate this gift, it will only come once a year when the snow begins to leave.”
And so it has been since then.
I’ve never done the kind of industrial maple sugaring that was perfected at Cornell University during the years I was a student there. It involves green plastic lines, strung from tree to tree, emptying into a collecting tank. Even, in some cases, using a pump to suck the sap out into those lines.
What I do is just the simple stuff. Drill the hole, tap in the spile (a hollow metal spike), hang the bucket or maybe a plastic jug with a lid on it. Then, the next day, I collect the sap from that tree and a dozen others in another bucket that I then I carry to the wide, shallow evaporating pan. There I cook the sap down outside over a woodfire—before finishing it off inside the house on the stove.
I never get more than a few quarts a season, but that’s enough to share. Maple syrup I made myself was one of the first gifts I gave to my wife, Nicola, when we started dating. Maybe it made a difference. Better ask her.
And, since giving thanks to the maple is part of all our northeastern Native traditions, I say these words today as I walk into the woods, carrying my hand drill, my buckets, and my spiles.
Wliwini for this time of year.
Wliwini for all the maple seasons past.
Wliwini for those that will come.
Wliwini to the Maple, chief of the trees.
Wliwini to Mother Earth.
Wliwini to Father Sun.
Wliwini to this sweet season.
a new song for this morning
Excerpted from A Year of Moons: Stories From the Adirondack Foothills by Joseph Bruchac. Copyright © 2022. Available from Fulcrum Books.