I grew up in New England where each spring the maple trees dripped sap to be made into that clear, brown, sweet treat that we poured over ice cream and pancakes. At least once a year, Mom would take us to a maple sugar house to watch the process of making maple syrup and to eat hot syrup on a cake of snow. When we got older, we took Mom to a sugar house so that she could introduce her grandchildren to this wonderful treat.
These memories were stirred for me once again as I read “Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide” in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2013) Kimmerer lives in upstate New York, but ecologically the region is very similar to New England, especially with regard to maple trees.
According to a map of bioregions drawn by an organization dedicated to restoring ancient food traditions, ecological regions are defined by the leading denizens of the regions, the iconic beings who shape the landscape, influence our daily lives, and feed us – both materially and spiritually. The Northeast U.S. is part of the Maple Nation.
After a detailed description of maple sugaring and what it means to the indigenous people of the Northeast, Kimmerer asks, “What does it mean to be a good citizen of Maple Nation?” One of the features of being a member of a nation is shared currency. In Maple Nation, the currency is carbon. It is traded, exchanged, bartered among community members from atmosphere to tree to beetle to woodpecker to fungus to log to firewood to atmosphere and back to tree. Shared wealth, balance, and reciprocity, with no waste.
Now, our addiction to fossil fuel and current energy policies accelerate carbon dioxide inputs every year, unequivocally causing a global rise in temperatures. Spring comes nearly a week earlier than it did just twenty years ago. I was shocked to read that the most highly regarded models predict that the climate of New England will become hostile to sugar maples within fifty years. Rising temperatures will reduce seedling success and regeneration will thereby start to fail. It already is failing. Insects will follow, and the oaks will get the upper hand.
Imagine New England without maples. Unthinkable. A brown fall instead of hills afire. Sugar houses boarded up. No more fragrant clouds of steam. Would we even recognize our homes? Is that a heartbreak we can bear?
Cheap gas now or maples for the next generation? Robin Wall Kimmerer concludes, “Call me crazy, but I’d welcome the tax that would resolve that question.”
A choice we can make: invest in renewable energy sources or say goodbye to our much-loved maple trees and sugaring traditions.