By Kaz Haykowsky
Early spring in Alberta is a time of dramatic and fitful change. Snowmelt leaves behind grey grit and sand on sidewalks and boulevards, and reveals the layers of trash forgotten and buried under successive snows of winter. The snow comes again, and then the thaw, and then the snow again. It feels as though winter can’t make up its mind to leave us for another cycle of the year. When the last lingering snow finally melts, the land is laid bare, and for a time it is naked.
It is a grey time, and a green time. As early rains wash away the grit, grass begins to poke through. Crocuses and dandelions pierce through the carpet of autumn leaves. Ducks and geese return to nest. Frogs begin to croak in the low ponds.
For the gardener it is a time of anticipation, starting seeds, and making plans for the garden plots. The weather is too cold and fickle to trust anything to the ground just yet. Looking out the window at the grey earth, one brings to mind the abundance of seasons past, the memory of ears fattening on the corn stalks, beans filling out their pods, and squash ripening on the vine under the warm sun.
For the moment, all seems to be sleeping still, but there is abundance in this time, too. The buds break on okimawatihk (Cree), the poplar trees, releasing their spring aroma, their furry catkins, and their pollen to the wind. The water stirs in the ground, and the sleeping trees can be seen to wake, if you know to see the signs.
When the days are warm and the nights are freezing, the trees begin to drink the reserves of sugar stored in their roots from the hot days of summer. The sugar feeds their newly emerging buds, preparing them to harvest the sun’s energy for another season. In this time, one may ask the trees to share some of their lifeblood. The Nêhiyawak (Cree) and many other peoples of this land knew how to ask in a good and respectful way, and shared of this abundance. Before Sâkipakawi-Pîsim — the budding moon of May — in Niska-Pîsim — the goose moon of March — and Ayîki-Pîsim — the frog moon of April — a small amount of the sap from maple and birch trees may be harvested.
A hole no bigger than half an inch wide is drilled through the bark and a few inches into the sapwood of the tree where the xylem cells, responsible for moving water and minerals from the roots to the crown of the tree, reside. A tap — or spile — is knocked into place, snug against the bark, and on a warm day the clear sap begins its steady drip immediately. Place a tube and bucket below to catch the precious liquid and let it flow. In a few days, the buckets will fill with clear water, with a distinctive smell of Manitoba Maple and a fresh sweetness reminiscent of coconut water. On a fire or stove, carefully boil down this liquid at a ratio of 40-60 to one to produce a golden syrup. The home fills with a rich, light caramel aroma as the syrup thickens in the bottom of the pan.
Birch trees flow later than maples, producing a sap that tastes like fresh glacial water with just a hint of mineral. This light sap is boiled at a ratio of 100 to one to produce a black syrup with a flavour of dark stone fruit, saskatoons, chokecherries, molasses, and minerals.
There is a magical quality to these syrups; they were made by the trees of this land, with the energy of our sun and the minerals of the earth beneath our feet. You can taste the effort of these life-giving trees, and feel gratitude for their generosity in sharing their lifeblood to energize us in the cold months of early spring.
The small hole in the trunk will heal over through the summer and fall, and if only a small trickle is taken the tree will have plenty to feed its new leaves. As a kindness, in reciprocity, water the tree through the season, and offer compost to its roots, so that it continues to grow strong for many years. Sap is only the first of many gifts of the tree. Their shade cools us through the summer months, their transpiration makes the clouds and the rain that invigorates the streams and the soils, their leaves produce the air we breathe, their seeds feed our small animal relatives, and their trunks and branches provide them a home.
Even in the early spring, when everything seems grey and still, it is truly an abundant time.