When I was a little girl growing up in the big woods of Maine, around this time every year my family and I would tap the maple trees on our sixty acres of woods. Though my brother and mother may recall it differently, it seemed to me that, in the division of labor on our homestead, this job was delegated to my father and me. I remember following my dad through the woods when I was four, five, and six, and the sound my winter boots made as they squished through the soft, slushy late winter snow to warming mud underneath. I remember the moist smells of imminent spring: bark, dirt, and pine needles. And I remember pausing at each tree to check the galvanized metal buckets for sap. When I was thirsty, I’d pull a bucket off a tree and tip it to my mouth to drink big gulps of the sweet, watery sap before pouring the remains into the five-gallon buckets my dad hauled home to our sugaring shack.
In that earthy paradise, where we had a big garden and a root cellar, and most of our toys were what we found outside in the woods, I had no perception of the natural world as anything but pure. If you’d told me then that one day I’d worry about our last wild places being carved up and subdivided, or that finding purity would feel like an impossible task, I’d never, in my necessary innocence, have believed you.
But today, as a mother of a small four-year-old child who loves the natural world just as I did, I find myself walking a delicate tightrope. I know that I have to balance my fears about environmental and planetary dangers with an honest effort on my part to ensure that the world feels for him as though it’s constantly unfurling, like a first New York fern.
With that in mind, though we live in an old fixer-upper on a small half-acre of land, Dan and I decided this spring that we’d tap one of the maples that stand sentry to our front lawn and buffer us from the cars that whiz by. We wanted to give our son a taste of what I remember from my childhood. And Dan, too, was eager to try — he’d never tapped a tree or made his own syrup.
Making our own syrup is a dream Dan and I have had for a while because, a few years ago, when our son was a baby, we found out that a chemical defoaming agent is used in most maple syrup production. Syrup, as it boils down, tends to foam (sometimes overflowing the pans) and needs the vigilant attentions of someone stirring it and adjusting the heat to control the foam. When I was a child, I spent long days playing around our sugaring shack as my father stoked the fire and stirred and stirred the sap as it boiled away in a big galvanized tub, turning, finally, into a dark amber brown syrup. Because you only get one gallon of syrup to forty gallons of sap, this was an arduous job with such a small reward — if you don’t count the memory itself and the depth of the experience.
This information about the defoaming agent came to me in the funny way some facts can — tangentially. I’d been calling maple syrup producers in our area to find one who would be willing to bottle in glass. One farmer happened to mention the defoamer. After calling a handful of other farms, I couldn’t find anyone, even organic farmers, who didn’t use it. And, even more interestingly, no one knew what the hell was in it. Some guessed that it came from “ground-up coral — like from the ocean,” others mentioned “canola oil,” and one just said, “I’m sure it’s all-natural,” and then waited for me to agree. One man, finally, got his bottle down from a high shelf in his barn and was able to find an ingredient label (many of the other farmers’ bottles had no labels at all).
In the old days, in order to defoam, farmers would use a pat of butter or a little milk (and a big paddle, like my dad used) when boiling down a huge vat of syrup. But these days, in the rush to yield more in less time, most maple producers turn to these chemical agents, which can be made from any combination of petroleum distillates, vegetable waxes or oils (most often products of GMO corn or canola), silicone (a polymer, i.e., plastic), and, sometimes, surfactants (soaps). Who knows, also, if they are gluten-free, soy-free, or free of any number of other common allergens?
You will not avoid this by buying pricey “organic” maple syrup. In fact, under federal law, over 250 non-organic substances and chemicals can be added to organic foods with no labeling whatsoever. And maple syrup producers do not have to list defoaming agents or salt as ingredients, though they do have to list artificial flavors and colors. Some people say that it’s such a tiny amount of defoamer (ten parts per million), that it couldn’t possibly make any difference health-wise, and, also, that most of the defoamer “evaporates into the air.” That may be true. But how do we know? I can’t help but think of the Corexit that was sprayed into the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill to help break down the oil — it didn’t work very well, and it’s now been proven to have been entirely toxic.
The other night, when Dan came home from work, he saw on his walk across our front lawn that the tap on our big old maple was leaking some sap behind the bucket. Looking out the window, I saw him grab a hunk of wood and start banging away at the metal tap. I had no idea what he was doing and, besides, it was dinnertime. I served our son and myself and we sat down to begin eating. We figured Daddy must be fixing something important. When he came in, my son asked, “What were you doing?”
“Sorry guys,” he said, “I got sidetracked.”
Later that night he told me the truth: “I was walking in and I saw that the sap wasn’t going into the bucket and I felt kind of hysterical. I can’t explain it, but here’s this tree giving its sap for us to make food — and intrinsically there’s something hopeful and beautiful in that — and then I saw the sap spilling down the side of the tree and I felt like we were not honoring this sacrifice.”
When he said that, I knew just how he felt. We hold on, Dan and I, to these moments when we can connect to something that validates a deep, intrinsic impulse to share the planet with the plants and animals that surround us. And yet we know that the larger world doesn’t necessarily value what we do anymore — or if it does, that we’ve gotten so far away from knowing how to make maple syrup without a chemical (or, for that matter, just asking ourselves simple questions like, “What is this stuff?”) that we’re lost in a wilderness that works against our nature. Maybe it’s just me and my memories of my own childhood, but there’s something about this that sticks in my craw.
This morning, Dan made pancakes and we poured a little of our own light golden syrup over them. It tasted sweet and pure, and we smacked our lips. Our son exclaimed with pride, “We made this ourselves!” We beamed at each other. On our way to the car for the drive to preschool, I looked at our maple tree, still patiently giving into the metal bucket. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.”