Commentary by Li Boyd Mille Lacs Band Member
If you ask the Nay Ah Shing High School seniors whether they're worried about climate change, they'll tell you, "Yeah, definitely." According to Dylan Oswaldson, there was hardly any snow to slow down the sugarbush last year, and they were able to gather all they needed for the season in a matter of days. In comparison, this year's harvest has dragged on for weeks due to wild temperature fluctuations.
In 2018 the region experienced warm days as early as January, with highs above freezing and even in the forties. In between these bouts of warm air and sunshine, however, the usual Minnesota cold snaps and snowstorms sent anyone looking for an early spring back indoors. This included the maple tree sap, which started running earlier than expected only to quickly go dry in cold conditions.
This made it a challenge for sap collectors to keep up with the trees. It was hard to know when and where to tap to get any good results. In mid-April, as most of the state dealt with yet another winter storm advisory, the Department of Natural Resources was trying its best to get enough sap out of the trees for one more boil.
Ziinzibaakwadwaatig, sugar maple trees, store the sweet nutrients we've named them for in their roots during the winter for use in the process of photosynthesis, the mechanism by which all plants convert sunlight into energy. When the ground starts to thaw, water pressure on the roots of the trees increases and pushes the nutrient rich sap up through tube-like cells called xylem. It's this column of moving sap that collectors are tapping into at this unique time during the spring. If the temperature drops and freezes surface water enough to keep it from soaking into the tree roots, the pressure gradient will equalize and the sap will no longer move. Without the sap moving, a collector's taps go dry.
Most people are familiar with the terms "global warming" and "climate change." While global warming may be technically true for the average temperature trend occurring around the globe today, it's a misleading term and perhaps unsuited for general use. "Climate change" is far more accurate, but a more descriptive term still might be "climate instability."
The earth's atmosphere contains a single massive natural engine with an uncountable number of moving parts. The largest parts are the oceans, and the oceans are like radiators which absorb heat or cold and move them to different places. Like any engine, altering even the smallest part can cause the entire machine to operate differently or even fail. So as humans began to affect greenhouse gas levels within the atmosphere during the Industrial Revolution, what was happening to the air began to affect what was happening to the water.
Greenhouse gasses trapped in the atmosphere absorb sunlight more efficiently than unpolluted air and cause localized warming, which then warms the oceans, which in turn may push cold water down only to have it rise by convection somewhere else, even somewhere it wouldn't normally be. Any large mass of warmer or cooler water can change the weather patterns of an entire hemisphere, causing abnormal storms and temperature extremes. After nearly two centuries of progressively worsening air and water pollution, earth's atmospheric machine has reached a critical tipping point. So while, on average, temperatures around the world are rising, the local effect that individuals witness can be warmer temperatures, cooler temperatures, abnormal seasonal changes, an increase in inclement weather, or any other effect that the atmospheric machine can produce. The introduction of a new element has made the system unstable. Without some kind of mitigation efforts, it will likely spin out of control.
This relates to ziinzibaakwadwaatig in several ways. First, it affects the way the Anishinaabe continue to practice traditional harvest. Anishinaabe often take their seasonal cues from animals. Combined with the knowledge passed down to them, it has served them well for centuries. The Anishinaabe have a system and even named the time comprising the month of April Iskigamizige-Giizis or Maple Sugar Moon. Yet, increasingly, the ziinzibaakwadwaatig have started running in Onaabani-Giizis, Hard Crust on the Snow Moon or March. Due to the often short and special nature of the ziinzibaakwadwaaboo run, it's important to have a clear idea of when it's happening, and this has become more difficult in the last century.
Furthermore, these changes could have major effects on the health of our trees altogether. According to a Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission article by Melonee Montano and Hannah Panci, ziinzibaakwadwaatig are expected to experience a range reduction in the near future, and the collecting season could come two or three weeks earlier by the end of the century. The changing temperatures and related instabilities could even cause the maple trees to produce sap with an overall lower sugar content. Some harvesters have already seen this. Claims used to be made that it took 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, but current estimates range from 50 to 70 gallons for that single gallon. Rising temperatures could mean more productive trees by volume in northern areas, but most sites overall are expected to decline.
While creating positive change within something already in motion may seem overwhelming, it is important to remember that even now, the smallest parts of the engine can affect how the whole engine works. Climate instability has become a fact of life, but humans have a unique ability to learn from their mistakes and persevere. To help combat climate instability, check with the county where you reside to find out about recycling options, buy used, consider switching to energy-efficient lighting and appliances (which can often get homeowners discounts from their electric companies), support alternative energy, and remember to be thankful to the Creator for what the earth has provided. Above all, keep in mind that every person is one of those tiny parts in that atmospheric engine, and though it needs maintenance, anyone can be the mechanic.