‘The Sugar Season’ Is a Bittersweet Warning

The addled combinations of sap and syrup, air and gravity, evaporation and consolidation also serve as a humble harbinger of global warming.

During one of the warmest modern winters ever, the balance tipped from what over centuries has been perfected within the many-dappled forests of New England and French Canada. The addled combinations of sap and syrup, air and gravity, evaporation and consolidation which combine to fill golden bottles many of us reach for many mornings now add up, as Douglas Whynott observes, to a humble harbinger of global warming. What began as a curious search to uncover the mechanics and marketing of maple syrup turns, in his calm telling, into a case study of how venerable family enterprises deal with an uncertain future, as a few American firms contend alongside a bustling, volatile, and surprisingly profitable if persistently cartel-controlled Canadian syrup federation.

Parts of this tale recall John McPhee’s fact-laden reports about our earth and those who seek to comprehend its hidden components. Whynott begins by summarizing the natural system. “Maple trees process carbon during photosynthesis, making carbohydrates that they later convert to sugar when the warm weather comes and the sap begins to flow.” What pioneering botanist James Marvin defined pithily as “the extent of the shock is equivalent to the rate of the flow” translates into the delicate conjuration of temperature by which solar thermodynamics, via wind, light, or weather, makes the sunlight “shock” into motion the release of the equivalent sap from within the tree. That sap gets tapped, once by buckets loaded onto oxen or horses, now often by strands of plastic tubing, which by reverse osmosis funnel the sap from what are called sugarbushes (stands of trees) into steamy sugarhouses for boiling and bottling.

The subtitle aims to follow “A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup–and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest”. Bruce Bascom’s lifelong quest to boost his sugarhouse from a family-run enterprise at the “second tier” of sugarhouses to compete against the big chains challenges his stamina. In Whynott’s telling, the son inherits if in gentler fashion the drive instilled by Bruce’s father (he yelled a lot) when he started the place, on top of Mount Kingsbury in Acworth, New Hampshire.

The author delves into this family’s dynamic, but the best moments in this storytelling come when Whynott lets the setting take over, as when he summons what used to be the reality of families working in the cold, dark woods. “Slogging through snow, carrying the heavy buckets that sometimes spilled on legs and into boots or doused the gloves on freezing March days. Such was the life of the son of the first full-time sugarmaker” in the ’50s and ’60s. Innovation then led to tubing replacing buckets, but the necessity to inspect lines and tap trunks intimately ties its workers to trees.

Another father-son pair led to Pete Rhoades’ compatible legacy, as he runs Butternut, to sustain another sugarhouse. He tells Whynott why: “After I finished college, when I was back here at home and spent a day in the woods, I would come home and talk to my dad and granddad about what I did that day, and they knew every tree I was talking about. After they died no one was interested in what I had done that day. That gave me validity.” Whynott agrees: “It was all so elemental, this–fire and water, wood and tree sap, steam and smoke.”

The “atavistic act” of boiling sap over flames tended for hours, and the tricky running of the evaporators and syrup pans, captivates a few who flock to Bascom’s and Butternut to gain tips and buy equipment for their own smaller sugarhouses. As David Marvin, son of James, reasons amicably: “Why be competitors when you can be cooperators?” Bascom and his colleagues buy syrup from family farms, and they trade it on the larger market, in turn competing and convening with the Québec syrup federation over the border.

Climate change quickens the plot. By the end of this century, New Hampshire may resemble today’s North Carolina. Hotter, more humid weather hovers, earlier many springs as milder winters end sooner. Maple orchards rise over stretches once as frigid as the Gaspé Peninsula of Québec, while groves in territories more southern than along Canada’s frontier may not last long as the earth keeps warming. Bascom’s advantage, as his sugarhouse surges from the “second-tier” which he and Butternut share, into a better-quality, ethically sustained alternative to corporate purveyors, may therefore not last. Québec, which dominates over three-fourths of the maple market, might benefit from fewer American sugarbushes. Canadian expanses can, by warming less, support new orchards.

Demand grows, but the price, thrown off by the American-Canadian exchange rate and the tendency of stored-up syrup to go “buddy” as flavor sours, leaves makers at the mercy of Québec’s reserves if the US crop flops. Rapid duration of the harvest demands that workers extract sap at the sun’s peak point (ever earlier). In that warm winter of 2012, “summer in March” reduced to ten days the ideal time to suck out by spouts and tubes (and a few buckets) from the heating maple trees the best syrup.

Alvin Clark reminds us that this fragile, temperamental sap compares to blood in its sensitivity. He tries to interest the greater public, as a syrup maker, in the danger signaled to the planet by the maple as an early warning system. Whynott sympathizes, and the last chapters of this low-key, modest and thoughtful (if generally slow-moving) study reveal the crucial role maples play. New England, despite its apparently invigorating and hydrogenated air, finds itself trapped in a chemically toxic “tailpipe” of emissions spewed from the rest of the continent. Therefore, the currently poor “natural” placement of maples across the US stands as a fragile landmark to predicaments of a warmer world.

A postscript, after Whynott’s three previous seasons of tracking the industry, notes that the 2013 crop rebounded and that the average syrup season lasted two weeks longer in the American Northeast. Still, maple syrup’s ecological relevance conveyed by this observant writer will invite readers to contemplate (after they should never again opt out for cheaper, high-fructose corn derivatives flavored by fenugreek, sold as Log Cabin, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth, or truth be told, Vermont Maid) the homespun symbol that this sticky sweet substance serves up, on many North American tables. Whynott treasures maple syrup’s production as “a bellwether, the earliest of agricultural traditions, the first to be taught to settlers by Native Americans, this pursuit that relies on sensitive fluctuations in temperature, as the sun advances north and the trees freeze at night.”

RATING 6 / 10