My column of two weeks ago described how, at the close of the 19th century, cheese factories simultaneously sprang up in Dunchurch, McKellar, Carling Township, Parry Sound, and Rosseau.
The march of the dastardly dew worm.
Remains of the Macfie sugar camp, built in 1939 and subsequently replaced by a more substantial structure nearby.
John Macfie photo
Those brave ventures quickly failed, but another approach to squeezing nourishment from our stubborn soil, maple syrup making, still hangs on, however tenuously.
In early times, almost all settlers tapped into this handy source of sweetener, cheaper than refined sugar. I know of a maple tree whose trunk displays a tapping scar dating back over 130 years. It was that long ago that James Inwood abandoned his one-acre clearing behind the Macfie farm and moved on to greener fields. Years ago, my brother discovered the diagonal, axe-made scar while harvesting forest products.
Realizing that the wound had to have been inflicted by Inwood, Don left the ancient tree standing as a curiosity.
Half a kilometer away, and also pictured here, lies (and doesn’t the old sugar camp appear to have simply got tired and lain down to die?) a second monument to maple sugar harvesting. I know its age precisely because I helped my father and a brother or two to build it, in the autumn of 1939.
That year, with a large acreage of logged-over hardwood bush sitting unused at the back of the farm, Dad decided to start making maple syrup in a big way. He bought a second-hand evaporator, and we built the sugar camp to accommodate it. In the spring of 1940, we tapped around 1200 maples and probably canned up close to 200 gallons of syrup, substantially boosting the farm’s income.
That syrup crop of 1940 launched an uninterrupted string of 71 produced by this sugar bush. I believe that the number of taps eventually topped 1800 and the output 400 gallons in exceptional seasons, before falling back to the level where it began.
Then came the cart-before-the-horse spring of 2012.
Remember the long spell of shirtsleeve weather we basked in, in early March?
It threw the maples’ timing for a loop, limiting syrup production across the board or cancelling the season altogether, as happened in the sugar bush that I know best.
So, you can add an increasingly cranky climate to the list of threats to our national tree and its sweet bounty. For a while, there was only acid precipitation to worry about, but now, they say, larvae of the introduced longhorn beetle are chewing our way, attacking all species of hardwood trees met with.
Now, be prepared for the dastardly dew worm!
Sometimes, after fishing in a small lake bordering our bush property near Dunchurch, I used to bury leftover dew worms near the water’s edge with two thoughts in mind. I was planting a future source of bass bait and at the same time helping the environment, because conventional wisdom said that earthworms enrich the soil.
Perhaps fifteen years later, I began noticing nearby patches of forest floor where the ground consisted of bare mineral soil. The spongy, six-inch-deep humus layer had disappeared, exposing the lateral roots of trees that had germinated in this moist, nourishing bed.
Today, 30 more years down the road, the condition has spread to embrace a considerable acreage.
Only recently, from news reports and scientific papers, have I learned the cause.
Earthworms, if they occurred here formerly, were frozen out by the Ice Age, which ended a mere ten thousand years ago.
It might have taken thousands more for native and introduced species to wriggle their way back north, but well-meaning people like me helped speed the process.
When I read those reports I remembered the swarming earthworms, big and small, that I find under my woodpiles, and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Earthworms eat dead vegetation, the basis of humus, and in my bush they are eating it all up.
The other day, I visited the spot where I first noticed the missing humus.
Only hazel bushes and a few sickly balsams grow there now. The maples are dead, or dying, and that’s just the start.
Scientists predict that as the humus layer thins, feel-good plants like trilliums and wild leeks, which make it their home, will also suffer.
Deep down, I hope that this is just crying wolf, and that we can continue to boldly proclaim The Maple Leaf (and syrup) Forever.