Every spring in southern Iowa between late February and March, the thaw hits a sweet spot that sends sugar makers out into the trees. Farther north, syruping traditionally begins in March, when the full moon is known as the Sugar Moon. But no matter the date, the signs of sugar season are the same. When a light frost falls overnight, and the sun warms the ground above freezing, the sap starts running. All anyone needs to catch it is a drill and a bucket. Then, like magic, the sap turns to sugar over a fire. It is nearly as close as we can get to a place: eating sugar straight from the tree.
Before there was sugar making, the Anishinaabe say, in the time after Nanabush created the world, hunting was easy, the weather was good, and thick syrup flowed straight from the maple trees every day of the year. But one morning Nanabush discovered that his people had abandoned their gardens, fishing nets, and firewood gathering and were instead lying throughout the forest catching syrup from the branches with their open mouths. Fearing they would grow fat and ungrateful and forget their ceremonies, Nanabush ran to the river with a birch-bark bucket and carried water over the forest canopy, pouring it down the tops of the maple trees. From then on, he said, sugar making would be hard. The sap would only run for a season. The people would have to gather wood for fires and heat stones to boil the sap down to syrup. It would take a long time, but after all of this work the people would appreciate what they had been given.1 [End Page 173]
Little about syruping, other than its origins in subsistence living, is native to Iowa. The tradition is an import from the north, just as I am. The Meskwaki people, who practiced sugar making in the Great Lakes region, brought syruping to what is now Iowa in the eighteenth century as they migrated south, following stands of hard maples near the Mississippi River. Maple syrup remains an important part of food sovereignty initiatives at the Meskwaki Settlement in central Iowa. But the practice was likely unknown to other First Nations here, such as the Sioux and Ioway, who centered their identity and subsistence on grassland cultures. In much of what is now farmland in Iowa, the maple tree was one of the “rear guard species” that Aldo Leopold describes as following the bur oak army south in the battle between woodland and prairie. Huge fires, fueled by dried grasses and prairie plants like silphium, which can grow 15 feet high, made the woodland-grassland war a standoff for tens of thousands of years until the settler’s plough cut through the fire’s path. My own Norway maple is no more than 60 years old, maybe three generations removed from the makeover of tallgrass into wooded farms. Some might say that my tree is a northern invader, and that I and my sugar making are as well. A more generous view might be Thomas Dean’s reminder that the prairie was once an inland sea, that the “permanent is elusive, a phantom,” that when we “reach through the long past for a sense of permanence, . . . what we grasp is change.” I want to see my own syruping as a touchstone for the way a place changes, the way all places are now changing. Syrup itself is changed, from rain and soil into sap, then back into steam and the sugar left behind.
Syruping is one of hundreds of ways to track the seasons, most of which I know best through food. Syrup means spring, the way tomatoes mean summer, apples mean fall, and Brussels sprouts sweetened by frost say winter is near at hand. Syruping, like seed saving or home brewing, also opens up community. My friend Paul, who taught me about soil horizons, was the first to show me how to harvest syrup from my maple tree. Paul brought his hand drill to my place one morning when the grass was brushed by frost, and loaned me a spile and a steel...