By Scott Brown
Northwestern has some pretty sweet maple trees. No, seriously. They’re full of sap used to make maple syrup. And a group of NU students, faculty and staff decided to tap in to that potential by tapping the trees this spring.
The project was part of a continuing partnership between Northwestern and the American Indian Center of Chicago (AIC), who have worked together for ten years in creating outdoor-based science and math education programs for Native American youth. After developing programs for kids and teens, psychology and SESP professor Doug Medin and AIC urban ecology coordinator Eli Suzukovich decided to see if they could use maple tapping as a way to engage people in higher education.
“There was already a culture on campus that for a long time had been wanting to do something,” Suzukovich said. “Within two days, we had about 60 people interested and participating.”
The week before spring break, Suzukovich guided students, faculty and staff on a walk around campus as they learned to recognize the scaly bark, mirrored branches and red buds that characterize springtime maples. Weinberg junior Maddie Higgins said she was drawn in by the chance to learn something new.
“Why not be more familiar with my literal surroundings?” Higgins said. “I walk past this stuff every single day and I never even notice enough to think ‘Oh, what kind of tree is that?’”
Over the break, people who stayed on campus helped drill holes in six trees and set up bags to collect the sap that dripped out. Sap is primarily water, but also contains sugars, nutrients and hormones which flow through a tree, nourishing the entire plant. The liquid generally freezes in the winter, and does not begin flowing again until life starts thawing out in the spring. At that point, the pressure created by the new flows of sap cause it to begin oozing out of any holes in the tree, serving as a food source for animals and as a future pancake topping for people.
For American Indians, maple tapping is part of a traditional practice called sugar camp, signifying a time when communities emerged from their winter camps and came back together to tap maples, or “sugar bush”, and prepare for the spring.
“While Northwestern students don’t have winter camp, they have winter quarter,” Suzukovich said. “So it’s kind of nice that after the quarter’s done, you can do this activity with other people on campus and people from the community outside the campus- get together, have fun, learn something new and build those relationships.”
Due to a quick jump in temperature between winter and spring, the window for maple tapping was relatively short in Evanston this year, and three of the trees tapped on campus turned out to be dry. And while 20 gallons of sap did come gushing out from the three successfully-tapped maples, it takes 40 gallons to make just one gallon of syrup. So instead, Suzukovich and the AIC staff boiled the sap down to a sticky goo, and then shaped it into maple candies.
“We found that Northwestern maple trees have a strong caramel taffy taste to them,” Suzukovich said. “It produces really great caramel-y, maple-y taffy.”
Besides creating both community and sticky sweets, the project was part of a university-wide initiative to increase engagement and education around Native American people and culture in the wake of the Report of the John Evans Study Committee issued last May. The report discussed the NU founder’s involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre and its implications for Northwestern’s relationship with Native Americans today.
“Being able to do the tree-tapping here in an urban setting and still be in touch with our cultural traditions is pretty great,” said Lorenzo Gudino, treasurer of Northwestern’s Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance. “I think it’s exactly what we want to do, as in getting people in touch with Native American culture and realizing that we’re not all on the reservation and we’re all still active in the community on a day-to-day basis.”
Suzokovich has big ideas for how to move the project forward: tapping birch trees, planting edible berry bushes for people to snack on as they walk down Sheridan and creating an outdoor education class with maple tapping as a final, to name a few. But ultimately, he said he just hopes to make a positive impact for both the NU and American Indian communities.
“Those students are seeing a new community, seeing the world a bit from that community’s eyes,” Suzokovich said. “You can’t predict the future, but hopefully next year when we do it, it’ll build that relationship and hopefully have positive outcomes and influence people in a positive way.