Sunday, January 29, 2012

It Was a Maple Syrup Sunday ... But That's Not Nearly As Sweet As It Sounds

We haven't had much of a winter around here. There were a couple of snowstorms, but nothing significant. In fact, the last snowstorm we had, dumped so little snow on us that we didn't even bother to shovel, and I think I've only shoveled twice - total - the whole winter ... which just.never.happens.

I kept thinking (for two months, now :) that, perhaps, this was just a teaser, and that winter would be here any day now, but the forecast for the next ten days has temps below freezing at night and above freezing during the day - typical spring weather for Maine.

And, maybe, we might allow ourselves to keep waiting and watching and believing that winter was still going to come our way, except for two things. First, the skunks are out. They are year-round here in Maine, but they are mostly sedentary during the winter, not venturing out, at least not too far, until the weather starts turning to spring. Second, the sap is running.

There are many aspects of the life Deus Ex Machina and I lead that are very seasonal. One of them is the sugaring season, and we keep a pretty close eye on the weather so that we know when to tap. Conventional wisdom will give a date - usually around late February - but it's been our unfortunate experience for the past two years that if we wait until the calendar says we should tap, we end up missing a few good weeks, and the season has been far too short for too many years recently.

We've never tapped this early, though, and if I didn't trust Deus Ex Machina's judgment about these things, then I would have cautioned us to wait ... until mid-February ... like we've always done ... and we would have, again, missed at least two weeks.

Interestingly, the USDA recently released a new hardiness zone map. In a disclaimer I saw in one place where the map was published, the USDA wanted to be sure that people understood this new map shouldn't be construed as proof of the global warming theory.

The last map, the one used extensively by most of us in the 1990's until now, was developed using data taken between 1974 and 1986. The new map uses data taken between 1976 and 2005. The new data used for the new map spans a significantly longer period, but also seems to show a definite up trend in temperatures. Where I live, in Maine, we've changed a whole hardiness zone from 5 to 6.

As they point out, it is important to note that there are other factors influencing what plants will thrive in a given area, including the amount of day light, but it is a little concerning to note that there really and truly has been a warming trend, and at this point, with the crazy, unsettled weather we've all been experiencing for the last decade, anyone who tries to deny that something has happened with our global climate is simply deluding himself and lying to the rest of us. It's like, Fletcher (Jim Carrey's character) in the movie Liar Liar, who, with his face covered in blue script, declares, "the ink is blue".

The "ink" is blue, and we simply can't deny it any longer by trying to pretend that it is red, because ink on our faces will be the least of our worries.

I love sugaring season, but I'm not terribly happy about it coming this early in the year. Winter is a time of rest, a time of inner contemplation, a time when we should be able to go inside - both figuratively and literally. The garden is under snow, and all of the plants are resting and waiting. Usually, January is a time to learn other kinds of skills or to plan for the next season, but mostly it's simple stuff, a break from the harvesting and preserving that dominates the rest of the year.

Last year, I was still in food preservation mode in November with my salt-dried fish, and we were still picking (and preserving into cider and sauce) apples in October.

With such a late canning season, I feel like I never really got the usual time off this year, and now, with maple sugaring season upon us, the whole cycle is beginning again. Soon, it will be time to start to turn the beds and start planting seeds. The question is, if our climate is changing, what do I plant?

Trying to figure out what will really thrive in my climate has always been an ongoing challenge for me. If it's that much of a challenge for me, in my limited space, I can't imagine how people who do this for a living will be able to make the adjustment.

Two years ago, we had an early warming spell followed by a killing frost. The result was that the apple trees were tricked into blooming early, and then, many orchards lost a significant amount of their crop when the blooms were killed in the frost.

When it comes to the whole global warming argument, there are too many people who are stuck in the blame game, and, personally, I think they're doing us all a great disservice. The problem is that if we agree that global warming is a direct result of something man has done (i.e. burning copious amounts of fossil fuels), then we agree that we need to stop doing that activity that caused the problem so that we don't make it worse. Right?

And any discussion about future action stops *right*there*, because no one wants to stop using fossil fuels. They're too much a part of the livestyles to which we, in the West, have made ourselves believe we are entitled.

The problem is that, as we remain impotent and inactive, wacky weather is wreaking havoc on our natural environment, and we have no plan for how to mitigate what could become quite a disaster.

Maybe the world won't mourn the loss of real maple syrup (and it's a real possibility that, if the earth continues this warming trend, that it will happen), but maple syrup is just one, tiny symptom of a systemic problem - the proverbial canary in the coal mine - and at some point, there will be some very valuable crop that is no longer available for human consumption, and then, maybe, we'll start paying attention.

But, by then, it might just be be too late to start making changes to mitigate the disasterous consequences of full-on crop failures.

In the meantime, as long as we're able, Deus Ex Machina and I will continue to tap our maples to make maple syrup, and maybe we'll put back a few of our preserved jars for the far future. Who knows, someday, maple syrup might be worth more than gold, and as the holders of the last quart of the real stuff, we'll be richer than kings ;).

Through some very good fortune, Deus Ex Machina and I recently acquired a (n extra) copy of the book The New York Times Field Guide to Medicinal Plants by Arnold and Connie Krochmal. Connie Krochmal is my aunt, and she co-wrote the book with her late husband back in the 1970s. She and my uncle were prolific writers and spent a lot of time studying plants and plant medicine. The book is an excellent resource for those who are interested in learning a bit more about plant medicine and identifying medicinal plants.

In recognition of surpassing 100 posts on his blog, Deus Ex Machina is giving away a copy of Connie and Arnold's book on his blog. If you're interested in being included in the drawing, please comment on his blog. The drawing will be February 29 - Leap Day :).


  1. It's been much the same here. The last two months have been this long stuck-in-November kind of weather, where we dip below freezing less than half the nights. We had one snow that mostly covered the ground, maybe 1/2 inch on the cars, gone by afternoon. Daffodils are starting to bloom out, over a month early. January is traditionally the cold month here, but if that holds we're going to have the Year Without a Winter. Oh, and our plant zone has gone from 7 to 8a here.

    But we've got all of February and March ahead of us, and we've had killer frosts in early April as well. It's going to be interesting to see what happens.

  2. Last year I was upset that I couldn't plant until early July - there had been so much snow and rain, my yard was sodden until early summer. This year, with the lack of snowfall? I'm starting to wonder if I won't be starting my garden in drought conditions.

    I don't have the link anymore, and can't seem to find the article (perhaps you will have better luck?), but I read a few months ago that the city of Chicago has been importing trees and plants from the New Orleans area - because some studies have implied that our ecosystem is going to change to resemble the bayou areas. Freaky.

    Reminds me of the point the artist made in this comic:

  3. I'm not super excited about the lack of winter, either. I really hope there doesn't come a day that the tap doesn't run :(