Those who gather maple sap can name the signs that tell them when it’s time to tap the trees. Many will say the sap begins to rise when warm days are followed by freezing nights. This is true and this we know.
But I prefer the sign my mother waited for. She used to tell me, “When the box elders begin to weep, it’s time to tap the maples.”
So I spent some time looking up into the branches of the tall box elders that surrounded our old house (on tract 33, Cass Lake, MN). Sometimes I would listen for their weeping in the night but Mom said they wept in the warmth of the afternoon. Then one day it happened that a box elder tear fell upon my upturned face and I knew that what she said was true. The box elders were weeping.
So this year when we drove out to the sugar bush camp and parked the car at the end of the tar I was keenly aware of the privilege I had of entering this small but rich domain. Once again I was greeted by sugar bush voices.
The great white pines reach high into the April sky, poised and waiting for the wind. One after another they join their voices as the song moves from tree to tree. I raise my hands and touch the sighing breath around me before stepping off toward the camp. As my boots crush the snow beneath each step, new and unique voices rise around my feet. It’s many steps to the camp and the icy songs enrich my journey.
Everyone is out emptying catch cans so I am alone at the fire. I put a sprig of cedar on the coals for symbolic cleansing and wash my hands in the smoke. The excited voices of the flaming tongues offer their fiery poems.
Later I take a bucket and go out among the trees. I put down a bit of tobacco and than Creator for the generous gift of nourishing sap. Then I empty a can into the bucket, re-hang the can and listen as the sap drops sing against the metal. After emptying and re-hanging several cans I listen to this sweet song of life. When all the cans are emptied we return to camp and our varied voices join the chorus.
The crackling fire must be fed. So someone begins splitting wood. The boiling sap sizzles, bubbles and hisses. Of course, these lyrical voices are also blended into the sugar bush symphony.
The shouts and laughter of playful children punctuate the great song. Then a weary child is lifted into the blanket swing and the rope squeaks against the bark of the supporting trees. A grandmother sings a soft lullaby and leans into the swing to kiss the little one. The child smiles once, the eyelids flutter and close.
When the sap is boiled down to syrup it’s poured into a clean bucket, covered with a dishtowel and carried back to the road. It’s been a warm day and the snow has melted. Now the boots make sucking sounds as we follow one another through the mud. A nation of small birds flyover us and their thin raspy songs trail behind them.
I listen carefully for the voices of the ancestors whispering around us as we leave with our precious gift. They are saying that even in the midst of great and widespread change the sugar bush voices remain the same.
Postscript April 12, 2009: We pulled the taps today and called an end to the gathering of sap. We usually do that when the buds are as big as squirrel ears. But it has been an abundant flow and we have all we need. Tomorrow we return for a final boil and I will use the last bucket to make sugar.
Anne M. Dunn is an Anishinabe-Ojibwe grandmother storyteller and published author. She makes her home in rural Deer River, MN, on the Leech Lake Reservation. She can be reached at twigfigsATyahooDOTcom