This year and last year, as temperatures start to warm toward the end of winter and early spring, I have kept busy and gotten outside by making my own maple syrup. From tapping the trees to collecting the sap to boiling the sap down to syrup and lastly canning the final product, it is a time- and labor-intensive hobby. While the obvious reward is the resulting jars of syrup for use on pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, or even in salad dressings and marinades, I have also found that making syrup serves as a valuable opportunity to feel connected to my environment, providing motivation and energy for my work on environmental and sustainability issues and benefitting my wellbeing and overall mental state. I think much of my experience with making maple syrup applies to other activities that connect people to nature, whether that’s hiking, painting natural scenes, gardening, kayaking, nature journaling, foraging, stargazing, studying the weather, birdwatching, or something else entirely.
I decided to try making maple syrup after gardening in a few small containers one summer led me to wonder how else I might produce food in my yard. I live in an area with many mature trees, some of which I knew were maples of some sort, though I didn’t know whether they were sugar maples. This led to my first point of connection through maple syrup making – looking in more detail at the environment that I had been walking past for years and learning about what I was looking at. I spent an afternoon walking around my yard with several tree identification webpages open on my phone learning how to pick out the sugar maples from red maples, Norway maples, silver maples, and black maples using the trees’ leaves, bark, and twigs. The fact that I can now relatively reliably identify sugar maples anywhere (though I still have difficulty differentiating them from black maples!) causes me to notice them more when I’m out and about and to feel a stronger attachment to them. I think that nature draws people in whether or not they can identify each of the species they are looking at, but there I feel an added sense of connection from being able to name a tree or animal and knowing some of its characteristics.
After tagging the sugar maples in my yard, I had a few months until syrup season. During this time, I read and watched videos about the process of tapping trees and boiling sap down to syrup. Learning about the changes the trees were going through in preparation for spring that caused the sap to flow again heightened my appreciation for the details of nature that were right under my nose. One of my favorite things about nature is that it carries out seemingly incredibly precise and complicated processes without having been programmed or consciously designed by humans to do so. Learning a bit more about how those processes work made me feel a little like I had been let in on some secret about the world.
During maple syrup season, I put all of my newly acquired knowledge into practice. I monitor the weather closely, and when I see a good stretch of days with temperatures over freezing, I tap the trees. Almost immediately, the sap begins to flow, and I start emptying the buckets hanging below the spiles once or twice every day. I log how much I gather and what the temperature was each day to try to learn what conditions are best for sap production. Like meditation or mindfulness, I find that this awareness grounds me in the current time and place. Many aspects of our daily lives are unaffected, at least in the short term, by changing environmental conditions – deadlines at work aren’t usually changed based on how much it rains and we can get food from the grocery store regardless of freezing temperatures. This is perhaps one reason that, although our natural environment surrounds us, it can be easy to ignore. In contrast, while making maple syrup I choose to pay attention to and to interact with my physical surroundings, which I find grounding and rewarding.
When my collection buckets are full, it’s time to boil the sap. The process of boiling the sap can get a little tedious, monitoring a fire for six or more hours in a day and adding more sap to the pans every 20 minutes or so. However, it also gets me outside in late February and early March, when I might often deem it too cold to spend any extended period of time outdoors.
While I sit by the fire, I notice new plants sprouting in the surrounding area that hadn’t been there the week before. I have seen deer, a fox, a skunk, and many types of birds, which often come closer to me than I could usually see them through the window. I observe clouds moving across the sky or the sunset (if I start evaporating the sap a little too late in the day). I am someone who starts to feel a little “down” and tired by the end of winter, between the short periods of daylight and the cold weather, and I have found that getting outside while making syrup helps to improve my mood and increases my motivation to do other things as well.
Finally, when 10-15 gallons of sap have boiled almost all day, I am left with a quart or two of syrup. Appreciating that just a few maple trees in my yard can provide us with this natural sweetener does make me think about the fact that nature has a lot to give us if we are good stewards of it. If I want to keep making maple syrup, I can’t put multiple taps in one tree to get more sap out of it one year because it reduces its chance of survival to the next year. Knowing that most of my maple trees are mature, to sustain the potential for maple syrup beyond their lifespan, I should plant or care for some young maple trees now. It’s easy for me to see how tuning into our connections to nature makes people more likely to behave in ways that protect their environment.
Spending time outside or appreciating nature in some way has been linked to pro-environmental behaviors in studies like this one. For those who are already involved with addressing environmental issues in some way, it can be an anxiety or grief inducing experience to spend a lot of time learning about environmental degradation or feeling like society isn’t able to make enough change fast enough to prevent major impacts of climate change or harm from pollution to vulnerable communities. People who work on trying to address climate change, for example, are considered particularly likely to experience burnout because of the serious and often overwhelming nature of the issue. Finding an activity that connects you to nature can be one way to combat this, as exposure to nature is associated with many benefits for well-being and mental health.
While making maple syrup, I became better able to identify the species around me, came to understand some natural cycles and processes, felt great appreciation for my immediate environment, and experienced feelings of calm and being present. I encourage everyone to find an activity that allows them to really focus on the surrounding nature and foster a sense of connection with it. If you already have a hobby or interest that serves this role in your life, let us know! What do you do that strengthens your relationship to the environment?