The farther away from Vermont I get, the more maple syrup I consume, as if it might pump green mountains and maple trees through my body. At home the syrup was a treat with occasional weekend brunches; during my four years at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, I was always stocked with a gallon jug, but still I never poured it onto food more than once a month or so; Now here in Alaska, maple syrup makes it way into my breakfast at least four times a week: in oatmeal, yogurt, on pancakes. I’ve even put it in my morning chai. When I first arrived in Ester, I held off on making pancakes until the package from my mom arrived with the quart of maple syrup made by my friend’s dad, Smitty. When two big boxes showed up at Calypso Farm, I excitedly brought them home and cut them open. Inside I found books, climbing gear, a daypack, peace flags and mail, but no syrup! I could picture the exact spot in the kitchen where it sat in Vermont. By that time I didn’t want to wait weeks for another package, so I broke down, went to the store, and bought the maple syrup at Fred Meyers (only, of course, because they carry Vermont maple syrup). It cost $14.00 for twelve ounces of grade B. I’m usually a grade A medium amber girl, but when in a place far away from maple trees and syrup production I’m not picky.
Smitty’s syrup arrived on Thursday, and it’s a good thing since I’m down to only a few more ounces of the store-bought stuff! What do people in Alaska do without this sticky, thick golden sweetness? Although there is the option of fake syrup with “maple” flavoring (many of these products don’t actually contain any real maple), some people tap birch trees. Before coming here, the thought of birch syrup never crossed my mind—it takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of syrup, as opposed to the maple ratio of 40:1—but with the plethora of birch trees, it only makes sense.
When Tom and Susan first bought the land that would become Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, they lived in a yurt without a large holding tank for water, and no driveway to drive five gallon jugs up, so in the spring when the sap started running, they tapped trees and had so much sap that they used it for drinking and cooking. “I tried doing the dishes with it one time, but it didn’t quite do the trick!” Tom laughed.
Inspired by a birch tapping presentation we went to at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Colby set up a bucket on one of the trees in our backyard. For the past week, the sap has been flowing and we’ve emptied the four-quart bucket four times; two of those days it was overflowing before we had the chance to empty it. Since it requires so much sap to make birch syrup, and because it must be heated at a lower temperature for a longer amount of time than maple sap due to its lower sugar content, we aren’t going to attempt to make it. Birch sap is a delicious drink with a subtle sweetness nonetheless.
As maple syrup continues to be a staple in my diet, we’ll see how long my supply lasts. I admit that I hold Vermont’s syrup to be the absolute best, and am therefore reluctant to buy it from another state or from Canada, but it sure puts a kink in my effort to eat local (it is in fact possible to get all meat and most produce Alaska-grown). There are always justifications for my indulgence—I ride my bike to work, I don’t have running water, I keep my house on the lowest possible heat setting, I grow most of my own food—so these must balance it all out, right?
It’s harder to look at what it will take to balance out the carbon emissions from the airplane I flew to get to Alaska, or the environmental costs of materials it took to make my car, computer, iPod and cell phone. As I write this, I feel the need to say that I don’t have a television, as if this might convince me whole-fullness or neutrality. What can I do to bring myself to a balance? Or is there no action to take but noticing, living in awareness and allowing each moment to move as it does?
I can pour maple syrup on my oats and feel connected to Vermont, or I can run on gravel roads in Alaska and feel how my legs move the same here as they do anywhere. I can hear birdcalls, smell pine needles soaking on the ground during spring thaw, lose my thoughts in the wind that pulls my ponytail and settle in the stillness that asks only for me to be present.
In this world with all of its intricacies and connections, all of its turbulence and calm, is it wrong to eat so much of one thing if it must be shipped so far? All I can do to find the answer is listen to the energy that propels me to run, which also asks me to sit, be quiet, be open.