I am a Sundancer. I have prayed at the tree. I have made an offering of my flesh. If it were not for the tree I would have gone mad. There was a point in my life in which I had become so overwhelmed with what I saw and the reality of it all.
We had lost everything. It was all gone and there was nothing that could be done. Our language, our culture, our ceremonies, our values, our stories, our way of life have all faded into history. Crushed with bureaucracy, lies and willfully racist or willfully blind Canadian public.
I was living in Toronto at the time and I realized that I had not touched the earth for days. I would leave my tiny rented room and I would walk on the sidewalk to the Subway station and head to Queen St. W. I had made myself alien to the earth. A great confusion settled. Sadness. Anger. Madness.
I dreamed I was walking down Queen Street on a glorious day and the street is lively but not too full. I am crying like a lost child. Sobbing. I am overcome by this feeling of hopelessness and I can hide it from the world no longer. I stumble down the street in tears of outrage and no one could care on a glorious day and the street is lively but not too full.
In the next moment, I am walking in a forest almost immediately my burden has been lifted. I come to a large poplar tree and it begins to speak to me. It tells me that nothing has been lost, "We remember everything. Whatever you need to know just come to us and ask."
I am renewed by this dream. The next day on my walk to work. I acknowledge all the trees on the street stopping to offer tobacco at some and hugging others.
I did not know how to take the words of the tree spirit and put them into practice in my life. I did not know how the tree was supposed to teach me the language or long lost cultural practices. All I knew is that I believed the answer to be true and if I were not the one who could crack the code the answer was still there for others. This was enough to carry me forward.
It would be many years later that I would see the tree that spoke to me when I attended my first Sundance.
It was the spring following my fourth and final year as a Sundancer that I had set upon the notion of tapping Maple trees and making Maple Syrup. Despite my dreams and teachings and all the things I had learned over the past two decades and despite my sincere offering at the beginning of the process I cannot escape the realization that I had committed a sin.
I have punctured holes in four Maple trees that were three quarters of a century old and all their sap is bleeding out onto the ground.
This happened because I just start doing things for me and it is all because of me that this is happening and all the focus becomes internal and disrespectful. My ego pushes more forward and I must be right. I cannot be wrong.
I should have taken more time. I should have asked more questions. I should have been more respectful. I shouldn't have drilled so many holes. That was the thing. That was what was wasteful. I should have stopped at one.
Over the first four days, I am able to collect enough sap to have my first boil and I fill two large stainless steel pots about three quarters full, maybe 25 liters in total.
I begin the boil at lunch break and stoke the fire after work, maintaining a steady steam but not boiling. I talk to my father in law Fred about my problem with the steel spigots and how most of the sap is being wasted especially now that the weather has hit the pattern for peak production.
I don't tell him this weight I feel; but I don't know if it would have made a difference. He did not grow up in a world where waste was tolerated.
He recalls his grandmother sending him out to collect elderberry vines to make their own spigots. He remembered elderberry being on the property some years ago, but hadn't seen any for a while. He suggested I try Sumac since it had a cork like centre similar to the elderberry vine.
We are blessed to have sumac all around our yard. This is a beautiful plant, it's called a tree but it's more in between. It grows to about 10 feet and it has has long lance shaped leaves that hold bright burgundy seed cones that slash red across the summer green.
This time of year the leaves are gone and the seed cones have dulled to a darker purple but it is easy enough to find. The sumac is always looking for attention.
The sumac like the dandelion grew in my esteem as I tried to remove it from my garden. It's extensive and aggressive roots snake out just inches below the surface and new plants can begin anywhere along the chain.
I had to admit that despite the troubles it caused, it was a hardy as well as beautiful plant and the truth was it would one day take that garden back from me with no bad feelings.
I also knew that the fruit of the sumac, that blood purple cone of seeds, was edible. I had come across this fact in a survival guide I had perused and had put theory to the test soon after. Although slightly bitter and with a fuzzy texture that is nowhere near pleasant; it is not entirely unappetizing. I could imagine with the proper nutritional engineering the taste could become quite acceptable and even delectable.
I once again made my offering of tobacco. I then used a tree snips and cut down one sumac about four feet high and what I guessed to be the proper circumference. I then snip into five inch lengths.
I use a large screw driver and push a hole through each one with relative ease.
I take my hand made spigots to the trees and the one closest to the road. The one that got the first sun of the day and the best sun of the day and wore the hole that had leaked barrels of sap for all the world to see.
I removed the wasteful steel spigot with an easy twist and put it in my pocket. It was obvious that my sumac spigot was too large for the hole, but that was good, you can't cut things bigger.
I started to tap the spigot in. The bark and secondary layers of the sumac peeled back creating an airtight seal. When I hit the right depth, liquid came quickly out of the end of the tube. I hang a pail on the notch carved into the spigot and it collects at an incredible rate. The drip, drip, drip is music. It was the old way. It is a beautiful thing.
That night my wife and I boiled the Maple sap down to maple syrup. We got about two cups. It was divine. Over the next ten days, I was boiling every waking hour and getting about one quart a day. Miraculous. A taste beyond compare.
I research Maple Syrup and am amazed at its superfood qualities with trace nutrients, metals and minerals that are quite beneficial to human beings but can be found together in no other natural source.
As a family we began to drink the sap and there was always a pot of maple sap tea on the fire. There were numerous health benefits associated with the drinking of the sap. It is cleansing and rejuvenating and an absolute boost for a time of year when the winter time blues have threatened to set up permanent residence.
I discover Maple trees growing along our driveway on both sides. Despite the fact that on one side the black walnut trees have choked out everything else and on the other side the swamp has drowned or is drowning all new trees. If we didn't make this driveway, there would be no Maple Trees here. The idea washes over me and it is my belief that the reason these things happen is that the Creator wants us to be happy. It is why medicine is sweet and berries are bright.
My grand children observe this whole process. I show them the marks on the tree where Grandma's Grandma tapped the same tree over 50 years ago. In their memory they will know that their family has always tapped these trees.
The memories of the great grandparents direct the grandfather who passes the traditional knowledge onto grandchildren and connects six generations in a moment.
This was part of the answer.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
When I get close, I can see that the pails are mostly on. That's the best part.
All around the spigots there are stains from wasted sap that has bled out and onto the ground.
A wound spilling out. Wasting away for no purpose. I have done a terrible thing.
I check the pails that remained fast and they do have some collected.
A cup or so in a few and three or four cups in others.
The first one, the one I did with the most care, has a couple of liters.
I reset a couple of pails. I return my collection to the sugar shack.
The stains on the trees are bright as flags of blood in my eyes
I drive past on my way to the radio station.
On the tree nearest the road, the sap is running so heavily it trickles
like the beginning of a mountain stream.
I have done a terrible thing.
Lincoln Manning runs Two Eagle Automotive which is next door to The Eagle 107.7 FM - Your First Nation Radio Station.
Lincoln has tapped trees and made his own Maple Syrup in the past. I tell him that I am looking for a plastic spigot of some kind that would be large enough to fit into the holes I bored into the trees. He smiles and steps out from behind his counter and walks to a shelf. He hold up an white spigot. He says that he sold a few for the very same purpose.
Lincoln does a fair business with the farmers, builders, fixers and general do-it-your-selfers from the non-Native communities in the area. They like the location and selection. They love the tax free for all business model.
I buy one that is the closest size I can approximate.
We talk some and when I ask if he thinks it will work, he smiles that smile that wishes you well and you can never tell.
After work, I stand at the tree with the white plumbing spigot in my hand. I see myself pushing and twisting and screwing with force this white plastic spigot threaded to dig and scrape into place. Plastic thread cut into hard maple. There is no way that is happening. It'll just make things worse.
Why did I make so many holes? What the hell were you thinking?
You have to be so right, right now.
Look at that. All of those trees. Those old trees.
I don't know if anyone else is seeing that. Nobody is saying anything.
Two weeks of this. Will it start to run faster.
I keep getting some though. I might be ready to boil this time tomorrow.
Science has not configured an accepted theory on why sap runs. It has to do with the extremes of temperature in spring in this part of Turtle Island. It has to be below freezing overnight and warm during the day.
The mechanics are agreed upon although there is no why. There are no leafs on the trees. Why does the tree require sugar and nutrients from the earth to be carried from top to bottom? What is it feeding.
Although it is the sugar that our bodies require, it is the minerals and other nutrients that are contained within Maple Syrup make it the true Superfood.
Maple Syrup healthiest sweetener
54 beneficial compounds in Maple Syrup
Friday, October 4, 2013
Come morning it’s grey and blowing, active weather, the meteorologists call it. Anxiety has made for a restless sleep and I know that despite what I don’t know, I did something wrong. I jump up and begin getting dressed.
“What’s wrong?” says my wife. “Nothing,” I lie. “I am going to check my pails.”
I walk up to the main road along our long driveway that runs 200 metres from our home back in the bush. (Or “back the bush” as my Anishinaabe family likes to say). There are dried limbs and other debris along the way. My anxiety grows.
I know that I have made a commitment and now, I fear, it is one that I cannot maintain.
I don’t need to get to the trees to know that my gut feeling is correct. I can see a silver maple syrup pail lying almost on our driveway. It has been blown off the tree and across the ground.
The wind picks up and rolls the pail a little further to drive the point home.
I pass the last bit of shrubs and tall grasses and I can see most of the pails have fallen off the trees. Only the one I did with my granddaughter remains fast. All the others, that I must now acknowledge were done with haste and hubris, have not held.
I check the one pail and there is about a cup of sap inside. I take it off the hook and walk over to my in-laws who I know will be up have their morning coffee.
I share the results of the first night. The liquid is brown. That’s not right, it’s supposed to be clear. I’m not sure if that’s bark or rust. I tell them most of the pails have fallen off and the spiles that haven’t been pulled out are way too loose to be any good.
My mother in law smiles, my father in law asks if I drilled the holes up to the mark he had made. I tell him I did, but the trees were really hard and it was difficult to keep the drill straight. “So you made the holes too big,” he said, none too pleased. “That’s what, I figure,” I reply.
“What are you going to do?” My mother in law asks. “I don’t know,” I say, “try and fix it, I guess.”
I get another drill bit and head back to the trees with the vain and futile hope that somehow I can drill the holes smaller. How do you dig yourself out of a hole?
I’m thinking that with a smaller bit I can go a little deeper and then tap in some more and perhaps that will hold. It sort of works, I get some drip but there is no way the spile will be able to hold up the pail. I get a ball of bailing twine and tie up the pails into place. It takes more time than I have, but when I’m done it looks like it could work.
I head to work, happily deceived.
When I get back home I can see the pails are still on the tree and feel momentary relief. As I get closer I can see the spiles have fallen out, some are on the ground others in the pails. There are only a few drops of liquid in the pails.
I repeat the morning’s process. I don’t know what else to do. The strong winds make sure that I will have to repeat again in the evening. I tell myself that once the wind dies down, this can still work.
The weather breaks overnight and a warm front rolls in. I sleep hard, making up for the previous nights restlessness. When I wake up the sun is shining and I hear birds singing. The strong winds are a memory.
I feel so relieved. Now, that the winds are gone, it’s possible that everything is going to work out.
I walk up to the trees. Beautiful spring morning, I smile gratefully up to the sun. The sun's warming grace tells me it’s all going to be OK.
When I get to my trees, I see that things are far worse than I could have imagined.
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
The trees had not been tapped for over 50 years. I had never done it. No one had done it where I grew up. There was no such thing as tapping trees in Northern Manitoba and anywhere else in Manitoba, as far as that goes.
I had visited a Sugar bush to buy Maple syrup a few times since I moved to southwestern Ontario but never toured the bush itself. I don’t know why the sugar sap ran here and not elsewhere. I had never given it a thought. After I had seen my first black squirrel, I learned not to be surprised on the hemispheric shifts in flora and fauna from where I was from and my new home in the southernmost part of Canada.
25 years pass. The idea floats here and there. Talked about, mentioned in passing and forgotten. I can’t say for sure how it found a foothold. From where, what or whom came the inspiration. Maybe it was a dream or something other whispering in my ear at night.
Someone helped to nudge the notion along through the ether and into this world. All I know is that one day I knew that I was going to do it and I set about converting idea into action - dream into reality.
I ask my in-laws, the elders in the family, for direction. My father in law shows me the trees he had planted with his grandmother when he was a little boy.
Five beautiful hard sugar maples that by his estimation must be around 70 years old, his mother had tapped those trees but he had never done it on his own. My mother in law, as well, remembers tapping trees as a child but had never done it when she grew up.
My wife told me she can remember being a little girl looking up at her grandmother as she went about tapping the trees. She remembers her grandmother’s kitchen filled with steam as the final water was boiled from the sugar and she remembers her grandmother holding out a spoon with a touch of liquid magic for her tongue.
That was the last memory.
I begin my research online, watching videos on youtube and tracking which one I felt was most helpful. When my in-laws are visiting one day I show them and they smile at the memories. “It looks simple enough,” I say. And they smile at that.
I visit a local sugar bush and ask if they have spiles, the metal funnel shaped spigots that you tap into the tree to drain the sap into the buckets. “We have plenty sitting in a bucket in a storage shed. We don’t do it like that anymore, these days we all use plastic tubing,” he says.
The modern sugar bush is no longer a group of trees with individual spiles and buckets. The trees are tapped with plastic spigots that are connected to a series of tubes that run the sap from a number of trees and drain into a barrel. Some have it so automated that it drains into the barrel, into a filter, then right into a boiler that drips out syrup.
I am only going to tap a couple of trees, I tell him. I buy a dozen spigots, hooks, buckets and covers for 20 bucks. I am pretty sure that we both feel that we kind of ripped off the other guy.
When I get back, I share that I have the tools to get started. The next big part is to be sure that I have the right bit for the hand drill to make the holes for the spile.
My father in law takes that task, he asks me to leave a spile with him and he will figure it out. He’s a carpenter, I’m a writer and I am happy to have him figure that out.
He calls me up about an hour later. He shows me a block of wood with a spigot sitting snugly inside. He has it marked with a piece of tape. “You have to go this deep, but no further,” he tells me. He is serious about this.
My father in law who is jovial at the best and worst of times is serious about business when it comes to his trade as a carpenter and as one who has lived much of his life dependent of Mother Earth to provide, he is serious about harvesting.
I take my granddaughter with me and we go to tap the first tree. I offer tobacco to the tree and to the Creator. I begin to crank the drill and the bit moves easily through the bark and the first layer of flesh but I struggle when I enter the meat of the tree. They don’t call it hard Maple for nothing.
I pause, reset my feet and hands and then begin to crank again. I wobble a bit but I keep going until I hit my mark.The clear liquid begins to leak out the hole. Excellent.
I take the spigot and I tap, tap, tap and then I see a drop of liquid come out the end. That’s it. I put the hook on the spigot and hang up my pail. We hear the tinny plink as the first lonely drop hits the bottom of the pail.
I look at my granddaughter and say, “looks like we are in business, my girl.” She beams her big warm smile.
We do it three more times, two spigots on two trees in total. I am getting weaker as I go along and truth be told, I start to hurry. The last couple holes require more stopping, more resetting of the feet and hands. When I tap these spigots in, they don’t fit snugly.
I know right away that this is going to be a problem. My only comfort is that I don’t know what I’m doing right so there’s a chance, that I don’t know what I am doing wrong.
As I prepare the report for my wife, I realize that I have just made a partnership with the trees and I have no idea what that means and how long it will last. For some reason I thought that I could give it a go, see what happened and if it didn’t work out; I could just stop.
I tell my partner, “I’ve just started a ceremony in which I don’t know what will happen and I don’t know how or when it will end. As soon as I put my tobacco down and put holes in those trees, I made a commitment to honor that ceremony until the sap is finished running. I didn’t realize that until it was done.”
I don’t sleep well. I’m bothered by the fact that the last two holes I drilled were obviously too big, the early spring weather echoes my unease. The winds blow hard and steady all night long.