Category Archives: Agriforestry

Making bears and fruit trees get along

I’ve recently been involved in a discussion with the BC Food Systems Network about the relationship between bears and food security. In terms of food security, this issue is an extremely important one for anyone living where large predators exist. I plan to write about it over several posts in order to dispel some common misconceptions about the human-predator relationship in terms of food security, and to propose some practical solutions.

Please feel free to voice your opinions in the comments section. I welcome the input, as it gives us all a chance to talk about this important issue. Your comments also provide me with food for thought, and the chance to develop my ideas.

How to make bears and fruit trees get along

A member of the BC Food Systems Network recently wrote about their community’s experience with the Conservation Service. According to this source, the COs in their area, instead of dealing effectively with any nuisance bears, are threatening people with fines if they don’t cut down their fruit and nut trees. While outraged with this Ministry’s attitude, I’m not surprised by it. Here in the Bella Coola Valley, too, people are being advised to cut down their fruit trees by the Conservation Service, instead of being offered support, protection (part of their motto!), and–oh, yes–conservation.

False belief #1: The ‘remove the attractant’ theory

In terms of food security, the idea that we must ‘remove all attractants’ to prevent bears from entering our communities is a dangerous line of thinking (particularly in light of our economic times). The logic may sound reasonable when you are living in the city and dealing with a bear in your garbage can. However, it is not consistent with the goals of food security, because in rural BC there is no limit to the list of attractants. Therefore, we cannot have food security in our communities and be consistent with these Ministry guidelines.

Most specifically, and to put it simply:  if we ascribe to the notion that humans can control bear behaviour by ‘removing the attractants’, then we cannot raise food. Fruit trees, berry bushes, carrots, and parsley all attract grizzly bears. Chickens, ducks, sheep, goats, and rabbits, all attract grizzly bears. The duck feed, the goat feed, and the chickens’ corn all attract grizzly bears. Fields of corn and oats attract bears. Beehives attract bears. (Many of the above also attract a host of other predators that threaten our food security, such as eagles, foxes, wolves, cougars, mice, owls, hawks, martin, weevils, and so on.)

If we are to be consistent with the ‘remove the attractant’ theory, then the next ‘logical’ step is to pass public policy laws that forbid people from raising their own food. In order to ‘remove all the attractants’ we will have to cut down all the fruit trees, plant no vegetable or herb gardens, and get rid of all the feed and grain for our agricultural animals–chickens (see Needless Suffering), ducks, geese, goats, pigs, turkeys, sheep, and so on–lest we be seen to be ‘baiting’ the bears. Instead, maybe we could free range our agricultural animals? No.  To be consistent with the ‘non-attractant theory’ we must leave it to the corporate agricultural producers who can afford (both ethically and financially) to keep animals indoors, behind Fort Knox type fenced areas, or on feedlots.

New Jersey Example

The idea of removing the attractants simply doesn’t work. This line of thinking got the state of New Jersey into its conundrum with their bears. They have gone a long way down this path, having made city wide efforts of removing the ‘attractants’ from their city streets and neighbourhoods. They have made huge efforts to limit the times in which garbage could be out on the street for collection, and even made centralized collection stations. Nevertheless, despite the fact they have removed all the so called ‘attractants’, bears have NOT stopped coming into people’s yards. Now accustomed to viewing human settlements as good food sources, bears are now entering houses. We should learn from their experience instead of continuing down the same path.

If we are going to have, and support, real food security in our province, we have to change the way we look at this problem. If not, then we will eventually lose the right to keep fruit trees, grow gardens, and raise animals for food. The evidence of this is revealed in the current attitude of British Columbia’s Conservation Service Officers.

Living under siege

The idea that humans are responsible to not ‘attract’ the bears is ridiculous. Humans have always grown gardens, had fruit trees, and domesticated animals in places where large predators roamed. Since humans have been on earth they have been in direct competition with other large predators for their food (livelihood) and, by shooting, trapping, snaring, or other aggressive measures, have trained these wild animals not to intrude into their human settlements. Until very recently, we have known and understood our relationship with the natural world; part of our role was teaching wildlife what is appropriate behaviour. We have lost that understanding now that most of us buy food from the grocery store, agricultural production is out of sight and out of mind, and the closest we get to a grizzly bear is by watching the Discovery Channel,

It is time to re-educate ourselves to re-educate the bears. Even the Conservation Officer Service acknowledges that humans  can ‘teach bears bad habits’, so why not teach them some good ones?

To view the series of posts on this topic, see:

Part two

Part three

Part four

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Filed under Agriforestry, Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Ethical farming, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Fruit Trees, personal food sovereignty, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming, Vegetable gardening

Fire update with photos

Well the fire crews seem to be winning today. The wind direction has helped a lot. It changed dramatically from yesterday and has been driving the fire south and down a narrow valley away from the Bella Coola Valley since early this morning. In addition, the Province has sent us in about 20 more fire-fighters, an additional helicopter with the water bucket, and the ‘big gun’–the Air Crane, which is a huge helicopter that can drop about 500 gallons of water each drop. It has been amazing to watch the crews working but the Air Crane at work takes the cake in terms of magnitude. I managed to get right down to the river where he was working and watched him draw the water and head back to the fire several times–man’s inventions are truly remarkable. If we had several of these machines working together we’d be in good shape in no time.

In the shot below, the Air Crane is dropping water on the fire. Although a huge machine, it still looks minuscule in comparison to the task at hand! (He is just above the treeline at the centre of the photo.)

View of the fire with the airport runway in the foreground.

View of the fire with the airport runway in the foreground.

The east side of Nuxalk Mountain ablaze.

The east side of Nuxalk Mountain ablaze; the Air Crain above the airplane hangar on the left hand side of the photo.

The draw that the fire is moving up is also our watershed. Many are worried that it will cross the Snootli river (which hails from this draw) and then threaten more houses on the south side of the valley. Thanks to this morning’s prominent winds, I no longer think this is a big concern at the moment. I won’t go as far as to say everything is fine today, but I am certainly much less worried than the past few days.

One of the things we have going for us is the steep terrain. The fire actually has to work to keep itself going. As you can see in the above photo, the face of the Nuxalk Mountain is mostly granite. Also, because of the many valleys (draws) that run north/south along our east/west valley, there are opportunities for it to move away from us as it seems to be doing today. Unlike say an Australian situation where the lay of the land is much less steep and thus can rage and move with extreme agility and frightening speed, here the fire should have much more difficulty taking hold in the bottom of the valley as it has a tendency to go up the side of a mountain instead of down. Of course, if it did we’d certainly be in a lot of trouble!

Another thing we have going for us is the amount of water around to draw from. In many other areas of the country we tend to rely upon fire retardant and gel, whereas here we can rely on water and draw from the many rivers that populate the province. As you can see from the photos, the river is a very short distance to the fire. The photo below shows the airport runway in the foreground and I am standing at the river edge while taking the photo.

Looking west towards the worst threat in the valley, the west side of the mountian where the wind was pushing the fire yesterday and threatening people's houses and forcing them to evacuate.

Looking west towards the worst threat in the valley, the west side of the mountain where the wind was pushing the fire yesterday and threatening people's houses and forcing them to evacuate. That is our airport runway in the foreground.

Air Crane headed back to drop water.

Air Crane headed back to drop water.

Air Crane coming in to fill up at the river.

Air Crane heading back to fire having just filled up at the river.

Here is a link to more photos of the fire by my friend Mike: Michael Wigle photographs. Here is a link to the Central Coast Regional District fire update page.

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Filed under Agriforestry, Wildfires

Working on the chainsaw gang

Lesson three from Dave was the most challenging (read ‘frightening’) to date. It is not that he insisted, but rather I figured that while I have someone here who knows what they are doing, I might as well make the most of it and get some safety lessons and usage tips. I’ve been rather like a stone age person working with my chainsaw-like tool; I’ve gone by feel and instinct, and been lucky so far. Until last Friday, I had never used a real chainsaw.

I looked for my steel-toed boots but could not find them. I was not sure if Dave would want me using the saw without the boots.  When I asked him if he was worried about my toes he stopped suddenly in front of me as if my question had momentarily frozen time. As he turned to face me, his eyes flashed and his eyebrows clamped down hard above them. His jaw took a defiant angle as he looked me up and down and said: “I’m worried about all your parts.”

The first exercise was to ‘buck up’ a fallen tree. Actually, the first real exercise was to learn how to start the darn saw! “Some guys put the saw on the ground, step on it and pull-start it,” Dave said derisively, before telling me that it was a risky way of starting the machine in these conditions. The chain could inadvertently hit something on the ground upon start-up, flip up into you and “ruin your whole day”. The safe way to start the saw is to hold it in one hand and pull-start it with the other.  Sounds easier than it is!

He demonstrated it to me a couple of times and then handed me the saw. When you are not a big, burly male with powerful upper body strength, it is not an easy task. After the first six or seven tries, I began to think I’d never be able to do it. I gave him a pleading look that had no effect on him at all, but elicited a delicate hand gesture that said ‘carry on.’ Finally, pull number eight (or nine, or ten) brought the saw to life. It was a rush–not to mention relief–to hear the saw growl.  The trick is to push the saw away from you with your left hand, while pulling the start cord up with your right, all in one fluid motion. When it screamed to life I was thrilled (“The First Cut is the Loudest”), because I had doubts about my ability to even start the darn thing. I beamed over at Dave who was smiling like a proud father while giving me two thumbs up, before bellowing over the saw, “Great, now turn it off!”

The safe way of starting a chainsaw.

The safe way of starting a chainsaw.

I turned the saw off and took my ear cover off to hear what his next advice would be. He offered three words along with his delicate hand gesture: “Do it again.” Three times he made me start and stop the saw before turning me loose on the newly fallen–by him–tree. Before getting to actually fall a real tree, he wanted me to get a feel for the saw. Once I made my first couple of cuts into the big alder, I had moments of fear and near panic–“My god, this could kill me…what was I thinking, wanting to learn to use a chainsaw…this is a job for a man, not me” and so on– for four more cuts.

My first cut.

My first cut.

After I bucked off the first 4-5 feet of the tree, Dave signaled me to turn off the saw again, and gave me some pointers. Pointer number one was: don’t have the saw going full tilt! Not knowing any better, I had taken to the tree with a vengeance, squeezing hard down on the throttle and working at the log like a hungry man with a steak knife at a Texas barbecue; but that is totally unnecessary–not to mention more dangerous–and once you get the hang of it and a feel for the accelerator, you can make the cuts quite gingerly, coming to a near stop with the chainsaw as you get to the end of the cut. I made a few more cuts and suddenly he stepped forward. “Lunchtime!” he smiled, taking hold of the saw and gesturing ‘after you’ towards our ‘lunch room’–a grove of trees with table and chairs set up in the shade.

After making my first few cuts, Dave gives me a few more pointers.

After making my first few cuts, Dave gives me a few more pointers.

After lunch, he lead me through the bucking up of the rest of the tree. I made firewood out of most of it, including the bigger limbs. By the end of the job I was exhausted! Not only that, I realized that I’d not had another thought about how scary it was working with the chainsaw. Instead, I had only concentrated on the task at hand and actually found myself enjoying it. However, holding the saw, bending over, making sure I didn’t trip and kill myself–a very real consideration when bucking up branches that get tangled around your feet and legs while  you work–really took it out of me. My forearms were nearly as tired as my back. I now have a whole new appreciation for what he’s been doing. When he wields the chainsaw, he makes it look like a butter-knife. When I said this to him he laughed, “No, it’s hard work for me too. I’m carrying that saw just like you are, and it is work.”

Two days later he talked me through my first tree falling job; it was exhilarating.

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The great transformation

When I hired Dave to clear the land I was excited by the prospect of gaining ground, and was looking forward to the job being completed. What I hadn’t counted on was that in order to get the job done he would put me to work for him! The first day he brought along his Honda quad-bike so that Judy (his wife) and I could haul the wood from the clearing. That was the first lesson he gave me–how to drive a quad. The first week of clearing was–in retrospect–hard physical work but easy going in terms of learning curve. All I had to learn was down for reverse and up was in gear, two, three, four. Basically the week was reduced to a limited repertoire: chop wood, haul, stack, repeat.

The land clearing has been a bit of an ad hoc arrangement. Dave fells the trees and Judy and I clean it up, then he asks me where to go next. We discuss the pros and cons of each tree, where the fence-line should go and decide from there. At first, I wanted to keep some of the bigger stumps–an idea that bewildered him to no end. I thought they’d be great for the goats to play on and he simply thought they were eyesores. In the end we came to an agreement about which ones I was to keep and which ones he’d take out. This of course was not before he got a lesson in the subtle differences between what constituted a ‘nice’, a ‘beautiful’ or a ‘gorgeous’ stump. Once he had cleared a bunch of the land, he’d also convinced me that some of the stumps I was emotionally attached to would have to go. However, I was determined to keep my gorgeous stump and for several days it performed the task of housing equipment like our chainsaws, gas, oil, cutters, and the much needed cold drinks and lunch packs (we’ve had week of record high temperatures). The week was spent with my gorgeous stump being the brunt of many a joke. At one point Dave did allow that it was useful as he fetched his chainsaw from its depths.

However, on Friday morning when I walked over to join the work party he had the loader poised in front of it and was beaming at me mischievously, “It’s gotta go honey.” The land around it was cleared and  suddenly I could see my wheat field and I realized he was right. It was taking up far too much ground in the middle of the best dirt on my property. “Get up here” he called and pointed to the driver’s seat in the cab of his machine. I stood there mouth agape, “There’s no better way to learn to drive a loader than to dig up a stump!”

My gorgeous stump!

My gorgeous stump!

Dave drove the machine and got it in position before handing over the controls to me. This machine demanded my attention as it was a lot more to think about than down-reverse, up-two-three-four. This has up, down, side-to-side, sweep, extend, clam, release, and that’s just the boom!

My first lesson.

My first lesson.

It sure looks a lot easier than it is (or he makes it so!). Each hand is in charge of 4 difference motions and several of the directions are anit-instinctual–at least they were for someone who has not had a lifetime of heavy equipment operation. In the end, Dave finished of the job of hauling my gorgeous stump out. The ground was soft and he didn’t want the machine to get stuck. Fair enough, I thought. The amount of ground gained was significant. We agreed that it was about 15 feet in diameter and because of the extensive root system, even more in actual cultivatable surface area. Although I was reluctant to see it go I know it was the right decision to do so.

Yesterday Dave cut down a clump of four large alders and then handed me the keys to the machine. After a brief orientation on the merits (and need for) ‘stabilization’ (three more things your hands must control), he turned me loose on the new stump and walked off to chop down more trees. When I had loosened the stump to his satisfaction, he came back and stood beside the stump and–while performing his best Bobcat impersonation–gave me some final hand signal pointers about how to actually haul it out of it’s place.

My first solo stump pull.

My first solo stump pull.

Surveying my newly gained ground from my 'once removed' gorgeous stump.

Surveying my newly gained ground from my 'once removed' gorgeous stump.

From whence the gorgeous stump came.

From whence the gorgeous stump came.

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Onwards and upwards

We’ve begun to clear the front fourty. What a job! We’re at it from 8 am until 5 pm. I’ve started flagging the trees that Dave will fall for us (notice the pink tape around some trees). Here are some shots of the process.

The dense bush before we begin clearing.

The dense bush before we begin clearing.

David Hall prepares to fell trees for us.

David Hall prepares to fell trees for us.

The first big alder gets cut.

The first big alder gets cut.

More later!

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To bee or not to bee

beeonwhiteflowerSince living in New Zealand, where there are more kinds of honey on any grocery store shelves than I ever thought could exist, I have wanted to keep bees. In New Zealand, until very recently, all honey had been organic by default. The country did not have veroa mites and very few bee diseases in general, so the apiarists could raise bees in natural conditions (sadly, this is no longer the case as the veroa mite moved into the country in about 2002). “Bees are the easiest animals you’ll ever keep on your farm,” was the typical response to my queries; thus this thought has remained with me.

Since my time in New Zealand, I have wanted to add bees to my repertoire on the farm. Keeping my own bees would be the answer to getting off the grocery store dependency for sugar. For a couple of years in NZ, I lived without sugar when I was lucky enough to live next to ‘Tony-the-Greek’ who kept his own hives and always gave me some of his honey. When I ran out of Tony’s honey, I could drive about a mile further down the road and buy more from ‘Robin-the-honey-man,’ who had his extractor not far from our house. At the time, I did everything with honey: sweetened my coffee and jams, baked with it, even used it as a skin softener.

To date, I have never been ready to accommodate bees by early spring, when  you need to get organized and order them. This year I finally thought I had the time to do this, and began the task of finding the equipment and different sources for the actual bees. There is a lot to learn about bees that I hadn’t counted on. Once I began my research I was soon quite discouraged: “You’re living in a very marginal area for bees,” was the answer I got from two agricultural specialists. Further inquiries with the two local fellows who have historically (or in one case, still do) kept bees confirmed what the professionals said. These two men have either lost all their hives or all but one hive over the past couple of years.

Apparently, bees like warmer weather than we get here–they don’t appreciate our wet weather or the damp–and they need acres and acres of good fodder (think wildflowers like fireweed and clovers) in order to keep healthy and well fed. Because Bella Coola is in a rain forest, coupled with the fact that we have very little cleared farm land, there simply is not enough fodder to support a colony of bees. If that wasn’t enough to put me off, the local experience is quite the opposite of the New Zealand experience. Bees are not the easiest farm animal to keep in British Columbia–even in a better, warmer, drier location. We have a higher number of diseases and thus the amount of work involved and numbers of times you have to tend to your hive are far greater than the time I have to dedicate to such an uncertain endeavour.

So, like the growing of great tomatoes and shell out beans, bees have been crossed off the list of things I can do well, given my geography. Despite the fact that the maple and birch syrup take a huge amount of energy to extract, that is a much more environmentally suitable solution to my sweetener needs than honey. Location, location, location–it’s not just good advice for real estate speculators. Now I know why most of Canada’s honey comes from the Prairies!

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Filed under Agriforestry, Animal issues, Educational, Food Security, Learning to Farm, Sustainable Farming

Ah, fiddlesticks

The perfect fiddlehead ready for harvest!

The perfect fiddlehead ready for harvest!

Spring is here and the running to keep up is set at a pace I’m not sure I can keep up with! The fiddleheads are up and gone and now we’re into stinging nettles. The spring has been really late in coming this year but suddenly it is all go. Last night as I came in the house I noticed that the cherry tree is suddenly in blossom–I’m sure it wasn’t this morning!

I managed to harvest a good couple of loads of fiddleheads. Usually I’ve been able to do it over a few days up to a week or so, but this year they seem to have come and gone in an instant. So, one good harvest was all I got. Still, they are a welcome addition to the menu and to the harvesting process. I love anything I don’t have to tend all year long or think about replanting, fertilizing, watering, etc! The fiddleheads are delicious. Cook them as you would asparagus: steam or lightly fry in olive oil or butter. They are much like asparagus in flavour but much more delicate in texture. There is no trace of the fibrousness of asparagus. If you have never tried them before, I encourage you to try them. Of all the wild harvested items I gather, these are by far the most anticipated each year.

Anthropologists have done studies that look at time, and discovered that hunter-gathering groups actually had much more time on their hands than agriculturalist groups. Instinctively, it is difficult to imagine. One would think that being in control of our food sources would free up some time. Now that I’m a serious food provisionist, I now know first hand why it doesn’t! It is so much easier to simply be observant, and harvest as and when nature provides, than to do all the planning, weeding, seed starting, transplanting, compost making, and so on that has to be done in order to grow things to an artificial schedule.

Fiddleheads unfurling so quickly I could practially perceive it while taking the photo!

A fiddlehead unfurls so quickly I could practically perceive it while taking the photo!

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Filed under Agriforestry, Gathering from the wild, Heritage foods, Hunting, personal food sovereignty

Tree Grafting 101

Brian Campbell: Local honey given to him as thanks for the grafting workshop.

Brian Campbell: Local honey given to him as thanks for the grafting workshop.

A couple of weekends ago I attended a fruit tree grafting workshop. Brian Campbell, a fruit tree grafter and beekeeper from Vancouver, flew in to teach the course. He brought with him a nice variety of scion (grafting) wood as well as the root stock for us to use during the workshop. He’d sent a list around to us the different kinds of scion wood that he would bring which provided a chance to look them up on the web and decide which three species I wanted. I was thrilled to see in his list that there were several heritage breeds of apples, one of them (the blue pearmain) is listed in the Slow Food ‘Ark of Taste’. That, I had to have.

Apple and pear trees don’t grow true from seed, consequently most trees are grafted on to a type of root stock. In fact, nowadays, almost all fruit trees you buy are grafted. There are some good reasons for this: it can give increased disease resistances as well as pest resistance, it allows you to control the size and vigor of the tree depending upon the root stock you choose, and the root stock can be chosen to match your soil type so you can design the tree to grow in what would otherwise be a less than optimum breeding ground for the particular apple or pear you wish to grow.

Because grafting is making the successful union of the cambium layers, there is an art to the process that takes some time to learn. After providing us with a demonstration and a few basic tools (knives and a metal washer to preserve our fingers), he turned us loose on some wood to practice with. There are a few ways of grafting but the method Brian showed us was called the ‘whip and tongue’ graft. The idea is to make two cuts into the root stock and then two cuts into the scion wood and slide the two ends together and bind it with grafting tape.

Step one: The whip cuts.

Make a diagonal cut on the scion wood leaving only three buds above the cut.

The whip cut.

The whip cut.

Make an identical cut on the root stock about one hand length above the soil line (roughly 8-10 inches above the roots).

Where to make the whip cut on the root stock.

Brian demonstrating where you make the whip cut on the root stock wood.

Brian demonstrating where you make the whip cut on the root stock wood.

Step three: Slice through the diagonal cut on the whip cuts on both the scion wood and the root stock to make the tongue cuts. Use a metal washer to protect your hands in case of knife slippage!

The grater's workplace safety item!

The grater's workplace safety item!

Step four: Join the scion to the root stock and wrap securely with grafting (or electricians) tape. Slide the two tongue cuts together being careful to make the bark meet as best you can.

Wrap your join carefully.

A carefully wrapped first graft.

A carefully wrapped first graft.

Label the trees and place them in wet wood shavings in a shady, but warm spot, for about a month or so and do not let it dry out! After this time it can be planted in the soil in the garden or moved to a larger pot. The little tree can be kept in a large pot for one year if you do not let it dry out. Once the graft has calloused over (after about one month to six weeks) you can safely remove the grafting tape.

My first grafting attempt, wrapped, planted and labeled.

My first completed fruit tree graft!

My first completed fruit tree graft!

All up we each go to make three grafts. It was a straightforward procedure which surprised me because I’ve read about grafting and the literature tends to make it sound more complicated than it is (or that is the way I’ve been understanding it!). Of course, it will be another month or so before I know if I was successful or not. Our intstructor boasted a nearly 100% success rate–here’s hoping some of his talent has rubbed off!

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The taste of place

The Essence of Canada

Birch syrup rendering over an open fire.

Birch syrup rendering over an open fire.

Well, it wasn’t exactly cost-effective, but we did taste the terroir of our own birch/maple syrup for the first time yesterday. Yes, that word ‘terroir’ extends beyond wine to other earthy products, because syrups do have local flavours, too.

Most people think of maple sugar production as quintessentially Canadian, and located either in Quebec or Ontario. It’s just not an activity one associates with the prairies or here on the western Cordillera–but we did it! We found six birch and three maple trees in our front yard which looked likely producers, and tapped them last week. Over the weekend we continued to clear the front forty, and in the process of burning the small dry sticks and undergrowth, we rendered down our first batch of maple/birch syrup. The rendering ratios are 40 and 100 to one respectively, and because the maples produced more sap, the ratio of syrup was about 40:60, so by my calculations (and believe me, during the day we had time to calculate!) we ended up with a mix of about 20% maple,  80% birch.

My friend Clarence came by and stood amazed at what we were doing, never having witnessed this activity in this valley. As I looked across at my little yellow buckets hanging from their spiles in the tree trunks, I wondered why we are not all harvesting from our woodlots in this serene, labour-free way. Much of our radio news these days is filled with so-called ‘catastrophists’ predicting global economic ruin, and advocating getting out of cities, and I’m glad we are in a place where there is still so much knowledge of how to fend for oneself (Clarence’s friend supplied me with the spiles, buckets and advice on which trees were best), and enough space to do so.

Birch syrup rendering continues inside for the final stages.

Birch syrup rendering continues inside for the final stages.

I had read that you can easily burn syrup in the last stages. Mind you, you can easily boil it all away thinking it’s still just water, because it looks that way for most of the process: no amber colour, no viscosity. We had been away for a few days and weren’t sure how much of the buckets was in fact rain water–but we remained hopeful. After a day’s boiling, I brought the pot inside to complete the task on the stove. Sure enough, miraculously, at about one inch depth the liquid suddenly thickened, darkened, and looked like maple syrup. I took my first, tentative, frugal sip. Delicious! I read that boiling over an open fire imparts a camp-fire, smokey taste, and that’s true; this seems to enhance the caramel flavour, while underneath (almost literally) is an earthy, mineral flavour. I contrasted this with the more ‘clear, crisp’ taste of some birch syrup we buy in Quesnel, a town northeast of us, up on the plateau.

So, after a day and a half, I had about a quarter of a cup of pure gold in a jam jar, and we’d burnt all our windfall sticks and branches. We’d also shared two days outside under grey skies with temperatures heroically hovering just above freezing, but we were able to celebrate our ‘spring’ break pleasantly warmed by the fire and dreaming of future spring days, when the air will smell of turned earth and chlorophyll rather than smoke and birch sugar. My food sovereignty year started with gathering fiddlehead ferns in early April, but this new discovery has extended my growing season into March. My attitude towards time has shifted; as a self-provisioner, it is now geared to food availability rather than the clock and the calendar. I used to regard my year of activity as beginning on May 24, the traditional date for beginning safe frost-free outdoor gardening; with the discovery of fiddleheads it regressed, and now it has regressed even further. My world is measured by food: not only in time, but in space also, because wherever I walk or drive I remember what food I gathered there, or what i might gather in the future–that berry patch, that bend in the river. This must be how animals map their worlds, too. Last week while clearing the front of our property I realized from their trails that bears travel east/west and deer travel north/south, because their food sources lie in those directions (the bears follow along the streams to the salmon rivers via the berry bushes, the deer to the meadows via my vegetable garden). Like the Aborigines of Australia with their songlines, I am making my own tracks across this valley. Like the deer and bears, my map is taking shape along paths of sustenance.

The results of the first rendering of my maple-birch syrup--tiny, but tasty and worth its weight in gold!

The results of the first rendering of my maple-birch syrup--tiny, but tasty and worth its weight in gold!

And while my project of food sovereignty is not always about cost effectiveness, this exercise renewed my appreciation for how cheap our food is: Quebec maple syrup in a jug at our supermarket is about $12. The more self-sufficient I become, the more I learn about how much effort it takes to feed myself. As with other food items  for sale in the store, I now think $12 for a jug of maple syrup is far too cheap for the resources used–even considering the so called efficiency of mass production.

I’m also looking at my land and its resources differently. What only a month ago was a tangled mass of ‘Wine Maple’ (that I was told should get taken out because it is ‘no good for anything’) has become a precious resource to me. I already have a second batch on the stove and will likely make several more batches over the next few weeks. I’m thrilled to have access to this wonderful sweet liquid–one less jug I’ll buy from the store. I feel a sense of accomplishment having added another dimension to my personal food security. I also feel a deeper connection to my land and an increasing sense of place; I now look at those trees on my place and think, ‘I know where you are and what you taste like!’

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Filed under Agriforestry, Educational, Food preservation, Just for fun, Learning to Farm