‘More precious than gold’

21 03 2023

Photo: Candace Maracle/CBC

Canada’s Haudenosaunee say inconsistent weather is proving to be a sticky situation for maple syrup season. By Candace Maracle from CBC News • Reposted: March 231, 2023

The ideal temperature for maple sap to run is when temperatures fall below 0 C at night and rise above zero during the day.

It’s something Tehahenteh Miller grew up knowing about collecting sap to make maple syrup. Miller, who is Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) and lives in Six Nations, Ont., has been tapping his trees for over a decade.

“If the sun shines, it increases the volume considerably and it’s usually the sunny side that we tap,” said Miller.

Maple trees tapped on Six Nations. Photo: Candace Maracle/CBC

Miller said he has seen changes in the last four or five years. Warmer winter weather followed by cold snaps impedes the maples’ sap flow.

“You look around and you can see a lot of the tops of the trees are dying,” he said.

Miller said that Haudenosaunee teachings predict that once the maple tree starts dying from the top, any conservation effort may be too late to turn things around. He hasn’t tapped his trees for the past three years “to give his trees a rest” from the stress climate change has put on them. 

A full bucket of maple sap. Photo: Candace Maracle/CBC
Sap is used in Haundenosaunee ceremony to honour the maple trees. Photo: Candace Maracle/CBC
Tim Johnson collects sap from buckets twice a day during the season when sap is running. Photo: Candace Maracle/CBC

Dawn Martin-Hill, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University, has researched how climate change is affecting Six Nations. She’s one of the co-authors of a 2021 report in Climate Services on observed and projected trends of climate change in Six Nations.

“What the climate change study showed here was that Six Nations was going to experience drought, flood, cycles of instability and that will impact the ability for the trees to run sap for the length that they used to,” she said.

Martin-Hill said Haudenosaunee have always understood the inter-connectedness of life.

“Our people don’t have to change a single story that we have in order to adjust to what modern science is beginning to find out and understand,” she said.

Sap drips from a newly drilled tap. Photo: Candace Maracle/CBC)

The sap that is collected from the maple tree is used in ceremony to honour the opening of the maple trees – the time of year when sap runs and can be collected to make syrup.

Origin of maple syrup

Miller said, according to Haudenosaunee teachings, after a harsh winter a Haudenosaunee village was on the verge of starvation when a young man went into the forest and sat by a tree, thinking of a solution. He noticed a squirrel climb a maple tree and lick the water droplets from a broken branch.He fashioned a small bowl from bark to collect sap where it was leaking from the broken branch. After being left out in the sun, the sap began to evaporate, making it extra sweet.

The young man drank the water and determining it was safe to consume, he told the others in the village. The maple sap nourished them and got them through winter without starving.After that, it was decided the maple tree would be honoured every year for this gift.

The Mohawk Longhouse in Six Nations held a ceremony to open the maple trees last week.

Family tradition

Maple sap must be boiled for hours to make syrup.

Mel Squire and her husband, Angus Goodleaf, collect sap on their property in Six Nations.

This is her second year tapping trees after learning from her family who have been doing it for generations.

“I think just getting older and reflecting back on my childhood and watching my grandfather do it … inspired me to get into doing it myself,” she said.

Angus Goodleaf boils sap for maple syrup. Photo: Mel Squire

They check their 20 taps daily to see how much sap has accumulated in buckets. The sap can only be stored for a few days before it must be boiled for hours.

“Forty gallons of sap gave us one gallon [of syrup],” said Squire.

“We can’t sell it. I don’t even know what I’d price it at. It’s more precious than gold at this point. So, it’s quite priceless.”

Of the Haudenosaunee tradition of tapping maple trees each spring, Miller said, “We owe [the trees] a responsibility to not just acknowledge them, but to be participatory. We’re actually practising our culture, reinforcing our culture by doing that. That’s part of our culture and it needs to be kept alive.”

The finished product. Photo: Mel Squire

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