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Maple, Vermont’s Best Teacher

image of muddy road with truck and two men carrying maple sugaring metal buckets.
Hazen Stoufer and Dan Bragg sugaring in East Montpelier during mud season 2022. Photo by John Lazenby.
No food — or anything else for that matter — is more synonymous with Vermont than maple syrup. It’s also our best teacher, connecting us to our ancestors and the land itself. 

That’s what I heard from Doug and Barbara Bragg, owners of Bragg Farm Sugarhouse and Gift Shop. “When I tap these trees,” Doug, an eighth-generation sugarmaker, explained, “I think of all of the people who came before me and did the same. Our oldest is over 300 years old.”

That’s a lot of generations. And Doug still uses a simple, traditional style: buckets and a wood-fired boiler.

For Doug Bragg, sugarmaking wasn’t so much a decision as a calling. “My father didn’t sugar as he had too much work with the dairy farm. My mother Jinnie encouraged me to start as a boy. My brothers and I started out back boiling sap in an iron kettle over a campfire.” 

Every Vermonter knows that maple syrup is famously labor-intensive. With a ratio of 40 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup, that’s a lot of trips to the buckets, wood to chop, and days of tending the fire. Tubing, reverse-osmosis systems, and high-tech boilers reduced the work, but no one would call it easy. “It’s something you think about all winter,” Bragg explained, “It’s hard work and a total team effort.”

When I checked in with Melody Brook, educator at the “Atowi Project” (atowi.org) and Elnu Abenaki, she reminded me that there’s an important spiritual lesson in sugaring. According to Abenaki tradition, maple trees once gave syrup. Gluskabe, the wandering hero of the early times, found a village in disarray. The people had become lazy from drinking syrup straight from the trees. Gluskabe took his canoe and filled the trees with water so that hard work would be needed to make syrup. 

“From an Abenaki perspective, the Maple Nation gives a double-gift,” Melody explained. “The sweetness of the sugar and the gift of harmony that comes from hard work done in community.” 

From an Indigenous perspective, maple trees are our relatives. While Bragg didn’t use that term, you heard it in how he talked about the trees he works with and gets to know. “The older the tree, the sweeter the sap,” Bragg explained. “You get to know which ones run the best and get real attached to them. When they die, like five old ones up on the ridge struck by lightning, it’s sad, like losing family.” 

It’s particularly sad since the Maple family knows his family. In recent years he’s tracked down his family’s original homesteads in the Mad River Valley. He found the sugarbush and thought he might have difficulty finding where the sugarhouse would have been. 

Not so. Doug immediately found himself among what was left of the sugaring equipment. “Your ancestors led you to it,” Barbara said matter-of-factly. Doug thought for a moment. “Well, the trees knew them.” 

And the trees know us. Dave Skene, a fellow faculty member at NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community, distilled the essence of the relationship that the Maple Nation has with us and its connecting power. 

Skene, who is of Métis descent, runs Wisahkotewinowa, an Indigenous urban farm in southern Ontario, which has a large sugarbush (wisahk.ca). “During sugaring, we host a lot of elders, Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe. Their teachings are diverse but the essence is this: maple renews our relationship to the land.” 

That’s something for us to give thanks for the next time we enjoy the gift of maple syrup. When the land is most under-stated — days of gray drizzle, the snow melting away, and our roads and paths reduced to mud — maple gives itself and links us back to all people and beings who have inhabited this land. And maybe think of a way to give back. 

Damian Costello is the Director of Postgraduate Studies at NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community and a speaker with the Vermont Humanities Council. On Monday, May 23 at 7 p.m. he will be giving a talk in person and on Zoom for the Kellogg-Hubbard Library titled “Murder in Plain Sight? An Abenaki/Settler Mystery on the Vermont Frontier.” Sign up at kellogghubbard.org/adult-programs