Place Matters: Syrup Season

by Jeremy Solin

I walked out of the house this morning and caught the first faint hints of spring: chickadees whistling their mating call, “fee-bee fee-bee,” crows joyously playing and calling in the tree tops, and moist, melting, earthy smells. The first signs of spring turn my attention to making maple syrup.  Although in our sugarbush, which we call The Maples, north of Antigo, which we traditionally tapped around the first week of April, our season has been steadily getting earlier. Now we tap sometime in middle to late March, just another indication of our changing climate. I am glad our sugarbush is as far north as it is, as it seems those farther south have been having more erratic, shorter seasons of late.

My kids are the fifth generation of Solins to make maple syrup in these woods. And, likely, before us there were generations of Menominee who sugared in or near these woods. We make maple syrup as a family and you can often find my dad leading one of my daughters or my son putting in taps or collecting sap in The Maples. The family tradition is one reason I make maple syrup, but it isn’t the only one.

More than anything, maple syrup is a seasonal rite of passage and way to deepen my connection to the place where I grew up. Maple sap is collected as the trees wake up from winter and begin the process of moving sap to their extremities to prepare to grow. The window is short because once the trees actually begin to grow, the sugar in the sap is turned to starch. So, the sap is only useful in the transition time between dormancy and full life.  And, during the time that the sap is flowing, the rest of the forest comes to life as well.  The chipmunks emerge from hibernation, the Yellow-bellied sap suckers, Red winged black birds, Woodcocks and Yellow-rumped warblers return from their winters in the south, and wild leeks and trout lilies sprout through the snow.  The nights spent in the sugarbush boiling sap down to syrup are often filled with the calls of owls, coyotes, and foxes – a wonderful departure from our human-dominated worlds.  Watching and participating in the spring renewal of the forest is an energizing and inspiring experience.

Maple syruping to me is also about stewardship. Maintaining a sugarbush isn’t just about tapping the trees and collecting the sap. The selection of which trees to cut for firewood and to make space for those remaining are serious decisions.  I do not take playing god in the life and death of trees lightly, and always have an eye to the long-term health and productivity of the forest.  Selling maple syrup (along with a variety of other products) allows us to keep this land in our family and to keep it as forest. Maple syrup is one of those “triple bottom line” activities that produces some (modest) income, provides immense personal and social benefits, and protects the ecological functioning of the forest.

Another important reason that I make syrup is that I absolutely it. I have a bit of a sweet tooth I guess. There are few things I will not add maple syrup to. In our house, maple syrup is the primary sweetener. We use it to sweeten coffee and tea, mix into cocktails, coat ice cream, replace white or brown sugar in baked goods, flavor yogurt, and combine with cider vinegar for a refreshing shrub among other uses. I find that nearly anything can be enhanced by the sweet, smoky flavor of maple syrup.

This month you will find us in The Maples continuing our spring tradition of tapping trees, watching the forest awaken, and caring for our land.  And, with suitable weather and a little craftsmanship, we will have a delicious product for our kitchen and many others.

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