The chapter begins with a story of Nanabozho, the Anishinaabe “Original Man.” Nanabozho observed that in some villages, people had grown lazy and took the gifts of the earth for granted because all they had to do was drink rich syrup from the maple trees all day. In response to this laziness, Nanabozho diluted the trees’ syrup with water, so that now the people must work to concentrate the syrup, reminding them of “both possibility and of responsibility.”
Nanabozho is briefly introduced here as a folk-hero trickster figure in Anishinaabe mythology, half-man and half-spirit. The lesson of this story is that receiving gifts—like the sweetness of maple sap—comes with its own responsibility. One cannot just take the gifts and give nothing in return.
When her daughters Linden and Larkin are still young, Robin moves with them to Fabius, New York, to an old farmhouse in a yard full of old Maple trees (Kimmerer capitalizes “Maple”). One day the girls discover a pile of old syrup-making equipment in the stable. Robin researches how to use it and buys more supplies at a nearby store, planning on “sugaring” in the old fashioned way of collecting sap in a bucket via a tube and spout drilled into the Maple tree.
This is an example of Kimmerer trying to bend the rules of English to better accommodate the animacy of non-humans after the lessons that she learned in the previous chapter. Plants are an important aspect of place and home to Robin, and so she defines this new house by the maples that surround it.
Robin, Linden, and Larkin eagerly await the coming of spring, when the sap begins to flow. Kimmerer explains that Maples have a sophisticated way of telling when spring has truly begun, measuring the amount of light they receive each day via photosensors in their buds. Lacking such a system, Robin herself must simply guess when the time is right. Noting years-old scars from past taps on the Maples in her yard, Robin drills a hole and inserts the “spile”—and sap immediately begins to drip into the bucket. She and the girls place three taps in each of their seven Maples. The girls catch some of the drops on their tongues, an act that moves Robin to tears, as she feels like she’s watching her daughters be nursed directly by Mother Earth.
Robin’s daughters often play a role in the memoir sections of the book as she jumps around through the years. In this chapter, they are still young children excited to harvest their own maple sap for the first time. Watching them drink the sap directly from the maples, Kimmerer is deeply moved. She often personifies Mother Earth as a being who sustains humans generously, and this image of Linden and Larkin then seems to Robin like Mother Earth directly feeding her daughters, who eagerly accept the gift.
That night Robin collects the sap from the buckets—a huge amount—and sets it to boil over a campfire overnight. With four gallons of sap, she hopes for just a cup of syrup by morning, but eventually she gives up and goes to bed. The next morning she sees that ice has formed on the remaining unboiled sap, and she remembers that her ancestors would also use this method to refine the syrup: pouring it into troughs, letting it freeze, and removing the layers of frozen water to leave the sugary syrup underneath. Kimmerer notes what an elegant solution this is, as it saves firewood and “maple sap runs at the one time of year when this method is possible.”
It's notable how much labor is required to produce so little syrup, but this makes it all the sweeter—one works for the gift, with the help of traditional methods that build on the qualities of the season itself, rather than just carelessly buying syrup at the store. Again Kimmerer notes the wisdom in traditional knowledge, here in using the freezing nights to refine the syrup more efficiently.
Kimmerer explains how Indigenous people would set up “sugar camp” when the time was right, with entire families moving to be near the Maples where they collected the sap. One tradition says that people learned to make syrup by observing the squirrels, who will scrape the bark off of a Maple tree so that the sap flows, and the next morning lick the sugar crystals that form overnight.
This passage returns to the idea that human beings should learn from our fellow living things instead of assuming our own superiority. Kimmerer highlights the Indigenous cultures that had the humility to do so from the start, learning from the squirrels in ancient times.
This time of the year is called “Maple Sugar Moon,” Kimmerer says, a period after the leanest depths of winter when the Maples offer their sap to “care for the people” as part of the Original Instructions. At the same time, the process helps the Maples as well. Only for a few weeks in spring—during the Maple Sugar Moon—sugar moves upwards from the roots to the buds, before the leaves are able to make their own sugar and send it back down to the roots.
Again Kimmerer combines a scientific explanation with traditional wisdom. The maple tree is feeding itself and preparing for spring by sending up sugar, but this could also be seen as providing sap to “care for the people.”
Robin stays up for many nights tending the fire and boiling down the sap. The trees give so much sap that eventually she pulls out the spiles to avoid wasting it. By the end of her adventure, Robin has bronchitis from sleeping outside in the cold and has made three quarts of syrup. Years later, her daughters remember that sugaring experience as being a lot of hard work, but they also remember drinking the sap straight from the tree. Kimmerer also reminds the reader of Nanabozho’s story—that the maples produce the sap, but humans must work to turn it into syrup. “It is our work, and our gratitude, that distills the sweetness.”
The physical result of all Robin’s and her daughters’ labor is negligible and would be considered a waste to an economist, but it has provided the value of memories, a direct connection with the land, and a sweet reward for hard work and gratitude.
Returning to her memories of sitting by the fire boiling Maple sap, Robin notices that two of the Maples seem exactly the same size, growing symmetrically on either side of her house’s entrance. She remembers that there was a custom in the 1800s of couples planting twin trees when they got married and started a family, and she assumes that these Maples were two such trees planted by a young couple long ago. Kimmerer imagines herself as living with a responsibility to this couple and to the trees themselves, as they have all given a long-term gift that she can never truly pay back. To reciprocate, she decides to leave another gift for the future by planting Daffodils beneath the Maples.
Kimmerer closes the chapter by attempting to see gifts in the long-term, from the perspective of trees and with consideration for how time passes more slowly for them. She has received the gift of maple syrup from this past couple and from the land, and so she decides to reciprocate by planting something new for future generations to enjoy.