I am not often found with a cordless electric drill in hand. It’s empowering. All that thrust at your fingertips. Add the heavy suede tool belt slung over my hips, and I feel as if I’m packing heat for a showdown, except I’m carrying plastic spigots instead of bullets and confronting good guys dressed in white. There is much trepidation over what I’m about to do.
I snap the bit into place and stare out over the still frozen lake that fronts my home, an off-grid, two-storey in the boreal wilderness of subarctic Northwest Territories. It is early May, or Tôdoo Zaà to the Dene, “month of melted ice along the shore.” Like sprinkles on white icing, the snow glints rainbow colours under the sun’s persistent gaze. I love this time of year; exploding from the introspection of winter’s darkness into dazzling daylight and frenetic outdoor activity. Joining a new birch syrup-making co-operative seemed an ideal way to funnel that energy into something delicious.
The co-op leader had instructed us to choose large, virile birch (“the hot and horny 20-year-olds”), then drill a test hole to determine when the sap starts flowing. I pick the most robust tree on our property, a stately paper birch with a kettlethick, alabaster trunk. I disinfect the point of entry with a cotton pad soaked with hydrogen peroxide and raise the drill. Then lower the drill. Then raise it. What is wrong with me? I’ve been assured that, done properly, tapping the tree will not lead to its demise, but my conservationist instincts leave me struggling to do the deed, as if the drill is some gateway tool that will lead to more insidious things.
I have spent a lifetime concerned about trees, water, nature. Bulldozers depress me, as do forest-razing housing starts. Only when I hear that a new park or nature preserve has been created do my anxieties settle, however briefly. But this ethos is inherently flawed. It is the paradox of conservationism that in our desperation to save and protect our natural spaces, we lose some of our own wildness. We put our trees into tree museums (as Joni Mitchell astutely noted) to look at them — like fine china that sits untouched — instead of building sustainably inside our forests in the spirit of cohabitation. By not participating in the natural order of things, we are destined for imbalance.
Just do what the woodpeckers do, I tell myself.
It does feel like a violation, puncturing the bark’s oily membrane, soft as the finest suede, to bore into the surprisingly dense hardwood. As they spiral to the ground, fleshy shavings release faint wafts of wintergreen — like a minty-fresh hamster cage — clearing my head and sinuses. I insert the spigot and hang the plastic bucket. A distant voice startles me. I had not noticed two men ice fishing, all of us poking holes into something white, waiting for a prize to pop out.
Four days later, when still no sap has spilled, I am instructed to move to where the snow has melted.
This time, as the drill enters the sapwood, a crystal-clear liquid sprays into my eyes. I feel as if I’ve hit a super jackpot and become, if not greedy, lustful as I tap another 10 trees, each time offering sage and a prayer of thanks — a give-and-take show of respect, Dene-style.
If you could bottle joy, it would taste like fresh birch sap; think cold, pure spring water with notes of honeysuckle. I nourish my three sons with it, give some to my husband for wine and deliver the rest each morning to the sugar shack, where it slowly simmers into high-end syrup. Birch trees do not heal as quickly as do maple, so at season’s end, I cork the holes to prevent infection. A checkup visit reveals some are still weeping, butterflies and ants swarming the sweet drip, opportunists all of us.
Conservationist Aldo Leopold once said that to be ecologically aware is to see the wounds. Yes, and sometimes it is to make them.