- Meanings of Maple: An Ethnography of Sugaring by Michael A. Lange
I learned most of what I previously knew about sugaring (producing maple syrup) while reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder sometime before the age of 8. That is to say, I didn't know much—and, as a recent transplant to the Northeast, I certainly didn't know much about why Vermont, of all the places where sugar maples grow, is the country's leading producer of maple syrup. Michael Lange, an anthropologist and folklorist at Champlain College, sheds light on it all in Meanings of Maple. "To tap into a maple is to tap into something fundamental, something definitional about the identity of [Vermont], and maple sap runs through the place like blood through the veins of an animal," he writes (p. 75-6). From Vermont woods to sugarhouses, grocery stores, festivals, and industry conferences, Lange expertly guides readers through maple syrup's process of production and its relationship to Vermont identity.
Each of the book's six chapters tackles one titular meaning. In chapter 1, "The Economic Meaning of Maple," Lange discusses the commodification of maple and the way traditionality and local identity interplay with economic transformation. In chapter 2, "The Culinary [End Page 339] Meaning of Maple," he explains the complicated official grading systems used to rate syrups and describe their flavor. Lange introduces here his discussion of terroir, the ways in which land and ecology affect flavor, and revisits it periodically to illuminate maple as a process and product connected to the literal land that enables it. While introducing chapter 3, "The Geographic Meaning of Maple," Lange writes that "as much as anything, this book is about meanings of place" (p. 61). What he describes as Vermont's "strong libertarian bent" (p. 90) and "strong separate identity" distinguish the state from the rest of New England and allow sugarmakers there to "[employ] that identity to give maple a story" (p. 85). Then, in chapter 4, "The Ecological Meaning of Maple," Lange explores interactions between human (cultural) and non-human (natural) worlds. "Sugaring . . . sits in a liminal space between old Vermont agricultural understandings of stewardship ecology . . . and a new Vermont good life understanding of eco-friendliness that is rooted . . . in . . . an idealized rural" (p. 96). In chapter 5, "The Agricultural Meaning of Maple," Lange expands on an earlier claim that sugarmakers and farmers share closely entwined, sometimes indistinguishable, identities. He then complicates this by pointing out that, of course, sugaring is actually rather unique; sugarmakers might be more easily compared to foragers because sugarmakers don't plant their own trees. In chapter 6, "The Heritage Meaning of Maple," Lange indulges in a little "linguistic tap-dancing" to say: "[Maple] is heritable, and once inherited, it is heritage" (p. 143). Sugarmakers are keenly, intimately aware of each meaning Lange discusses. They assume "a duty to protect sugaring by doing it well and helping/reinforcing others to do it well" and are "beholden to many different entities by this responsibility: themselves, their trees, their neighbors, their ancestors, the Vermont way of life" (p. 167). Ultimately, they are responsible for sustaining what Lange describes in the epilogue as "an exportable symbol of the state" (p. 169).
The strength of Lange's work becomes obvious when he skillfully relates one titular meaning to another. These moments make this work's relevance to the field as a whole especially clear. But his carefully organized chapters could even be treated independently, perhaps as a way for readers to familiarize themselves with one of the many lenses folklorists use to examine the world around them. Students in an introductory folklore class could read excerpts of chapter 1, for example, and immediately understand the effects of commodification on traditional practices. Better yet, any unambitious reader could read one chapter, put the book down for a month, and read another, without spending the first 10 pages of the reading session struggling to remember what was discussed previously.