Trees have a lot to tell us about the state of their world, and ours. They’re in trouble too.
That tough, old sugar maple clinging for dear life to a primordial rock up there by my barn, for example, has surely been through many a hard winter, summer drought, and other traumatic seasonal surprises. But this late winter/early spring, maple sap/syrup season must be one of the most challenging in its long history of stolid endurance.
As I sit here in the relative comfort of my upstairs office, a cold, east wind and blowing snow is beating around, through, and against the old maple. Now and then an occasional spring songbird flits about in a search for shelter.
It’s the first week of April, 2018. I’ve planted potatoes by the third week. But at this rate I’ll be lucky to get out onto the land with my cultivator to prepare the garden for a new-season planting.
Mr. Massey-Ferguson, plugged in near the garage, is telling me I disconnected the snow blower too soon, after all. But, I say, it was late March.
You should know by now, Phil, comes Mr. Massey’s reply: expect the unexpected: nothing is as it should be.
Take the weather, that favourite of all traditional, Canadian topics: the whole of the country has been beset for weeks by temperatures far lower than normal, as gigantic lobes, or “polar vortexes” of Arctic air, are regularly carried south by the de-stabilized Jet Stream.
Yes, it hardly seems to make sense, it invites derision. But this is the new climate-change normal. It happened late last winter and early spring, and extended into the late spring and summer, in the shape of an unusually late, cool growing season locally.
This unusual season looked promising at first, with a thaw in mid-February. My young friends were eager to tap some trees for syrup-making. I was skeptical. “It’s way too soon to tap trees,” I said. But they knew some people who were already making syrup. So, tap we did, a modest 10 trees, and a total of 20 taps, including two into the old maple up by the barn.
And, sure enough the sap ran for a few days. The old pan was cleaned up. We gathered up some wood, and, outside under a more-or-less clear blue sky, the boiling began, leading to the making of about a gallon of syrup. At the customary ratio of 40-to-one, that means we collected about 40 gallons of sap.
But then winter came back, and the sap stopped running for several weeks. For a week or so up until this week’s storm hit, Mr. Massey and I carried on alone with the sap-gathering and syrup-making. I figure those 10 trees gave me about two gallons of syrup, with a pleasing, amber color and lovely, maple taste.
I don’t think I’ll do it again, though having a proper “sugar shack” operation has always been a dream. But there comes a time when you have to start setting limits on the use of the energy that’s left, if you know what I mean.
I’ve also recently learned during this brief maple-syrup career, that sugar maples are in trouble: a species of tree that routinely had an exceptionally long life-span – as long as 300 or 400 years – started dying earlier decades ago. The decline, in urban as well as rural areas, has been observed throughout the sugar-maple range in eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S.
The results of a 1996 study of the decline of sugar maple bushes in Quebec, published in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research, compared tree-ring chronologies from health and unhealthy trees. A particularly bad period of decline in the 1980s appeared to correspond to the damage caused by severe drought and insect infestation, the authors concluded.
They also observed that the “robust native trees” recovered well “to frequent natural disturbances.”
A more recent study by a Michigan Technological University researcher came up with a surprising conclusion: non-indigenous earthworms are eating up the forest floor, causing sugar maples to die back, and harming “other forest dwellers.”
As in Canada, sugar maples are prized in Michigan for their syrup-making, sugary sap, and as valuable lumber. But foresters began noticing that previously healthy, mature maples were in declining health. Tara Bal, an assistant professor of forest resources and environmental science, began studying more than 100 sites in upper Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. One factor stood out: the deteriorating condition of the forest floor. “And nothing affects a forest floor quite like earthworms,” said an article about the study published last September in Science Daily.
But earthworms, including the nightcrawlers favored by sport fishers, are not native to North America. “All the earthworm species here are from Europe or Asia, brought in when humans transplanted plants,” said Bal.
Unfortunately, “earthworms really like sugar maple leaves,” and soon gobble up the layer of leave-litter and its nutrients left by the trees in the fall, she said.
As a gardener I’ve learned to appreciate the nutrients earthworms put into the soil. But as a lover of forest trees, I now see they are a mixed blessing.
And as for my maple trees, I think I’ll let them have all the sap they can get from now on.
Besides, that old maple up by the barn earned the right to retire a long time ago.
Me too, come to that — I, who was once a tree.
Yes, darn right, I am a tree-hugger. Indeed, I am about to go out this morning to gather the last sap, and put my arms around that old tree, my spiritual brother, as best I can, and give “thou” the good news.
A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in April, 2018
This post was to some extent inspired by the so far inchoate spring of 2018