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Food, Care and the Sugar Maple Stand

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Food and Medicine

Part of the book series: Biosemiotics ((BSEM,volume 22))

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The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is one of the most emblematic plants and symbols of Canada. It is especially important in the province of Québec that produces approximately three quarters of the world’s prized maple syrup. Articulating ways of questioning from biosemiotics and the ecological humanities, I will reflect on the manner in which feeding and caring play out in the concrete, situated practice that is maple sugaring. Doing so, I will address three points: the expression of semiosis in forests, husbandry in the maple stand and the production of syrup, and finally caring relationships involving humans and trees. Maple sugaring thus appears replete with (bio)semiosis, mind networks that grow through and among bodies.

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  1. 1.

    We could distinguish at this point translation at the level of codes and translation at the level of signs. Both function by operating equivalencies, however the first is rigid and follows predetermined and strict rules, whereas the second operates by virtue of creative analogies between the different elements composing signs.

  2. 2.

    Two points in closing this section. One of the first and most quoted scientific papers arguing in favor of plant communication through chemical signaling appeared a few decades ago in Science, “Rapid changes in tree leaf chemistry induced by damage. Evidence for communication between plants” (Baldwin and Schultz 1983). The controlled experiment consisted in damaging the leaves of trees and measuring the levels of phenolic and tannic compounds (anti-nutrients that deter herbivores and phytophagous insects) in neighboring trees; the authors report a significant increase of these compounds, and conclude that the trees communicate via airborne biochemical signals. Interestingly, these experiments were conducted on poplars (Populus X euroamericana) and… sugar maples. The mindfulness of maples is a time-tested topic – the joys of serendipity! Second point: a thorough biosemiotic analysis of forests would require that I go over research done by so many others, particularly the work of Suzanne Simard (2018) on communication in plants, and Eduardo Kohn’s (2013) forest epistemology (that explicitly builds on Bateson’s ideas). I would even address the bestselling book The hidden life of trees by Peter Wohlleben (2015). However Bateson’s arguments are, for now, sufficiently convincing as they lay solid epistemic foundations for other-than-human semiotics.

  3. 3.

    A second reason why Leopold’s ideas on wildlife require critical assessment is that he makes certain ideological assumptions that are, for better or for worse, at odds with contemporary science and environmentally informed thinking. The idea of landownership that Leopold champions has its limits and biases; nation-states harness, organize and exploit other-than-humans in ways that Leopold does not address; sex and gender differences have environmental implications that Leopold seems oblivious to. I fully acknowledge these shortcomings and potential areas of dispute. Nonetheless, Leopold was keenly aware of the teeming networks of life in wildlands, the interrelatedness of species and systems, and the roles that humans could, should play within these networks. These are the issues that catch my attention.

  4. 4.

    Analogies are important: at this point the tree is not like a hose, with water moving up and down, leaking through the tap; rather it is more like a sponge being squeezed around in all directions. On this particular question of analogies, a biosemiotician would point out that Leopold’s use of the terms “engine” and “mechanism” to describe living systems is pernicious. What makes living systems living is that they are precisely not like cars or radios: they are not aggregates of parts that must be assembled (by who?) in a certain order for them to work. Rather, they are alive because they self-correct, adapt, form communities, interpret signs within and without.

  5. 5.

    This last sentence presents an interesting, perhaps unintentional, polysemy. “Redundant” means both obsolete or unnecessary, and laid off or jobless. Thus, talking about a “redundant forest” is an admission that in ordinary times the forest (among other living systems) is integrated in cycles of production and labour. The illusions of capitalism rest in part on the uncompensated and unrecognized work of nature.

  6. 6.

    For more on the health aspects of maple sugar products, see the dedicated website on maple sugar research hosted by the organisation of Quebec maple syrup producers, For more on the biosemiotics of sugar consumption, see Pierre-Louis Patoine’s chapter in this volume.

  7. 7.

    Bellacasa exemplifies the deceptions of agro-capitalism with the dust bowl phenomenon that ravaged the continental United States in the 1930s, and the controversial heritage of the Green revolution, that took place notably in Brazil, India and Mexico in the 1950s and 1960s. So many other examples could be pointed to. As I write this, at the end of the summer in 2019, fires rage in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, an effect widely attributed to soaring deforestation rates and the hunger for land by mining, logging and agro-food companies (Lappé 2019).

  8. 8.

    In fact, I am not convinced that the benefits of Shinrin-yoku are limited to forest settings, but could encompass the uniquely diverse sensorial realities of all environments, such as seasides, grasslands, frozen deserts, etc. And while there may be something specific about natural environments, the distinction between culture and nature, as envisaged by Tsunetsugu et al., is extremely problematic. The authors oppose, with no explanations, natural elements such as wood, the sound of running water and images of trees, to artificial ones like metal, the sound of a dental turbine, and “displeasure-evoking images” (30) Without delving into the problems implied by this overly simplistic distinction, it is only fair to point out that city experiences can be sensorially soothing for some people: coming back home after a long holiday and rediscovering familiar colors, odors, sounds in one’s home and neighborhood can have appeasing physiological effects. This is hinted at by the authors themselves who suggest that future practices of Shinrin-yoku could be “individually tailored” (35) or at least recognize the reality of “physiological subgroups” (35). One person/subgroup might relate to (i.e. find meaningful) something that another person/subgroup might be oblivious to; this is basically the whole point of Jakob von Uexküll’s Umweltforschung.


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This paper would never have seen the light of day without experience in a sugar shack. Warm thanks to the Durand family from the city of Québec, and especially Pierre Durand, for inviting me so often to take part in their sugaring seasons, something that enabled me to learn the complexity, intelligence and joy involved in this practice. I would also like to thank Martin Pelletier, forest engineer and head of the technology transfer section of Acer. Centre de recherche, de développement, et de transfert technologique acéricole for so generously providing information on sugaring techniques and the behaviour of maple trees. Finally, I wish to thank Guillaume Provost of Producteurs et productrices acéricoles du Québec, for also confirming production estimates of different harvesting techniques.

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Hope, J. (2021). Food, Care and the Sugar Maple Stand. In: Hendlin, Y.H., Hope, J. (eds) Food and Medicine . Biosemiotics, vol 22. Springer, Cham.

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