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Life can be sweet down in the forest

by C.W. Nicol

Mr. Matsuki, our forester, is six years older than me, so he was born in 1934. When World War II ended, life in the countryside of Japan was tough, so sugary sweets, chocolates and suchlike were scarce. He recalls that, as a boy, he learned that the twigs or branches of a certain native Japanese tree, when broken in the winter, would drip a sap that often made little forest icicles which, when licked, were sweet.

I don’t know if it was tasting the maple syrup that my daughter and son-in-law brought from Canada that reminded him of this, but three years ago he started collecting sap from the same kind of tree he remembered from his childhood. Then he boiled it down, and made syrup.

In North America, maple syrup is made from the concentrated sap of the sugar maple (Acer sacchurum). We have many kinds of maples in Japan, the most famous of which has small leaves that turn brilliant red in autumn. Mr. Matsuki’s maple also turns red, but not so brilliantly, and its large leaves are bigger than a sugar maple’s and rather like those of a sycamore. The trunk, especially when young, has a striking and unusual pattern, which gives it its Japanese name — uri hada kaede, which if translated means “melon- (or gourd-) skinned maple.” Sorry, I can’t find an English name for it, but its scientific name is Acer rufinerve. To me, though, it will always be Matsuki’s maple.

Mr. Matsuki collects the sap at the end of winter, when there is still snow on the ground and before the leaves start budding. He drills a small hole in the tree and inserts a bamboo tube. The protruding end of the tube is inserted into the nozzle of a clean plastic jerry can. A 20-liter container can be half full in a day. Mr. Matsuki then takes the sap back to his hut and boils off the excess water in a big pot on his wood stove. He tells me that the sap is reduced to 1/80th in volume. It becomes an amber-colored syrup which, to my taste, is even better than Canadian maple syrup.

Leaping a little, but actually sticking to the point of the story, it is pertinent here to note that, with the support and co-operation of Amway Japan, our woodland trust here in Kurohime, in the Nagano Prefecture hills, has been involved in a program called “One by One.” In this, we invite children who for various reasons are unable to live with their parents, and are in the care of institutions, to come and share time with us in the woods. We strongly feel that children who have missed a lot in life may have a window in their hearts opened a little by spending time in living woodland — together with people who care, and who let kids be kids.

This kind of institution, or supervised lodgings for children, is really a big-city phenomena. But having lived with folk whose lives are close to nature, people such as the Inuit in the Arctic, the Dena in Canada’s chilly northwest, and others that we so-called civilized folk used to call “natives,” I have learned that children are part of society, and that if their birth-parents are not around, then they should have any number of parents to choose from. In big cities and modern societies, it doesn’t work that way. Children without birth-parents can get shut off from society and from nature.

If I was the way I am now within my heart and soul, but 40 years old instead of 67, I’d adopt a dozen of these children. However, as it is, it just wouldn’t be fair. What I can do, with the tireless and selfless efforts of the woodland trust staff, friends, colleagues and volunteers, is to endeavor to give them a chance to see and enjoy nature for a while, and to know that they will always be welcomed if they return. You know, these kids really are precious, they react to whatever you try to do for them, they respond to friendship and — dare I use the word — love.

At the end of March this year, we had a group of 20 young guests come, and Mr. Matsuki had spend a couple of weeks preparing his special syrup. His way of serving is to heat it up with some hot water to make a refreshing beverage. I had another idea.

On the last day, just before the young guests boarded their bus to head back to the city, we usually take them for buckwheat noodles in Togakushi, a mountain village famous for this very typical Japanese food. This time, instead, I decided to make Canadian-style buckwheat pancakes — which would go wondrously well with a dab of butter and Mr. Matsuki’s maple syrup.

For the pancakes I used Togakushi buckwheat flour, with a dash of organic wheat flour, in a mixture of roughly eight parts buckwheat, two parts wheat. To this I added just a few eggs, milk, some baking powder and a little salt. Yogurt mixed in the milk works fine, too. The pancake mix should be thin enough to pour, and if you’ve never tried making pancakes yourself, you must learn to flip them over when little bubbles appear on the uncooked side. You’ve got to get the temperature of the pan or griddle just right, which is a little bit of a bother on a campfire or on charcoal.

I cooked the pancakes on a griddle over a charcoal fire, because we were serving them in the woods. It’s much easier to cook pancakes in a Teflon frying pan on a gas stove! Dribble just a little vegetable oil onto the griddle or into the pan. Butter works too, but tends to burn more easily. I made enough pancakes for 60 servings, and they were all gone in less than an hour. Even the 11-year-old lad who said he hated buckwheat noodles had three helpings!

I like to think that the pancakes’ popularity was due to my deft culinary skills — but more likely it was the syrup.

Mr. Matsuki says that the harvesting of sap doesn’t seem to harm the maples, but we noticed that wasps like to take over the new holes.

No matter, as probably the most important part of this simple treat, we were able to show the children that sweetness comes from nature; that even trees that seem bare of leaves and appear dead are, in fact, full of potential energy; and that a vital product of forests is sugar — a carbohydrate created from carbon dioxide in the air, the power of sunlight, water from the ground . . . and the magical science of photosynthesis. Trees and forests are not only about wood and timber, after all.

I wonder what would happen if I added a little yeast to Mr. Matsuki’s maple sap . . .