Brainstorm: Maple Syrup and Climate Change — tapping into the history and science of Northwestern trees

Isabelle Butera and Zella Milfred

This episode of Brainstorm covers environmental policy and culture Prof. Eli Suzukovich III’s “Maple Syrup and Climate Change” course, which combines lessons about indigenous philosophy, climate change and the economics of the sugar industry. Students also get hands-on field work opportunities as they navigate the sweet history of maple trees on campus.

ZELLA MILFRED: Maybe you’ve taken a glimpse at the gallon jugs duct taped to maple trees around campus.

ISABELLE BUTERA: And if you take a step closer, you may see a clear sap slowly filling the jugs.

ZELLA MILFRED: This is from the work done in “Maple Syrup and Climate Change” class taught by environmental policy and culture Prof. Eli Suzukovich III. He created the class six years ago and has taught it every winter since.

ISABELLE BUTERA: The course is an intersection between the Native American Studies and Environmental Policy and Culture departments. Suzukovich III combines several themes into one class.


ISABELLE BUTERA: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Isabelle Butera.

ZELLA MILFRED: And I’m Zella Milfred. This is Brainstorm, a podcast exploring all things science, health and tech.

ZELLA MILFRED: Suzukovich III is a member of the Little Shell Band of the Chippewa-Cree tribe and the Krajina Serb ethnic group. He uses maple syrup data collection to teach students about climate change and Indigenous issues.

ISABELLE BUTERA: The class is well-known for the hands-on experience of tapping trees on Northwestern’s campus. But the course goes beyond the syrup and explores the interconnectedness of maple tapping, Indigenous philosophies and climate change.

ZELLA MILFRED: The book titled “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer is a required course reading, which emphasizes how dialogue between humans and nature is essential in forming reciprocal relationships with the environment. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and explained that while sap is a gift from nature, humans must appreciate it and put in an equal amount of work in order to obtain the sweet syrup.

ISABELLE BUTERA: In the chapter titled “Maple Sugar Moon,” Kimmerer writes, “The responsibility does not lie with the maples alone. The other half belongs to us; we participate in its transformation. It is our work, and our gratitude, that distills the sweetness.”

ISABELLE BUTERA: This quarter, the class tapped a total of 32 maple trees across campus. The trees produced 120 gallons of sap by Week Seven of the academic quarter. The students are divided into four groups of about eight students each. On the second day of class, Professor Suzukovich III taught students how to tap these trees.

ZELLA MILFRED: To tap a tree, Profesor Suzukovich III drills a hole at a 45-degree angle into the tree and taps in a metal spile, which is a small hollow tool that carries sap out of the tree. The best conditions for sap to flow is during late winter, when it is below freezing at night and above freezing during the day.

ZELLA MILFRED: The trees produce sap during this time of year because the tree’s baby buds need energy to begin growing by the early spring. So they signal to the roots to convert stored starch into sugar and send it up through the trunk.

ISABELLE BUTERA: Then each group independently checks its trees daily, logging the air and ground temperatures, sugar content, moisture, precipitation –

[sound of rain]

ISABELLE BUTERA: – and wildlife around the tree. They crouch down and watch the spile, counting the number of drops per minute, too.

ZELLA MILFRED: Another part of the class is storing and collecting the sap, monitoring the tree and eventually cooking the syrup.

ZELLA MILFRED: Students don’t just study the sap production to keep their own tasty syrup — the data is crucial for understanding climate patterns in the area. Suzukovich III found that Evanston’s climate impacts the sugar content of the sap from NU’s sugar maples.

ELI SUZUKOVICH III: When you have those deep freezes, the sugar maples tend to like that, and they get a higher sugar content. Whereas you get warmer temperatures, sugar content goes down and water content goes up.

ZELLA MILFRED: The temperature depends on the position of global polar vortexes. Suzukovich III said that because the polar vortex is currently over Europe, it has been colder there. But here? It is warmer and rainier.

ISABELLE BUTERA: This was harder than expected — especially on rainy days — for SESP senior Isabella Twocrow, who is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

ISABELLA TWOCROW: I was out there in the rain yesterday and I’m like talking to myself like a crazy person with my umbrella, and I’m like trying to like count how many drops are coming out of this spile to measure the sugar content every day, and we measure how much of sap we’ve collected, and we check the ground temperature, the air temperature, around each tree. It was a lot more work than I thought it was going to be.

ISABELLE BUTERA: Twocrow’s group decided to use five-gallon buckets to collect the sap — something she does not recommend. Having to lug around full buckets of sap across campus from the trees to her dorm is a challenging endeavor, she said.

ZELLA MILFRED: However, Twocrow says the physical labor brings her group closer together. She also enjoys checking on and connecting with the trees themselves.

ISABELLA TWOCROW: We have a tree called Jennifer Coolidge, and I’ll be like “What’s pp, Jennifer Coolidge, like how’s it going today? What’s your sap production like?”


ISABELLE BUTERA: Professor Suzukovich III said he incorporates Indigenous perspectives into the class through conversations about food sovereignty, or the ability for communities to control the production of their own food. Native communities in the Midwest are using maple tapping to enact food sovereignty and protect their lands

ELI SUZUKOVICH III: If you’re doing maple tapping, it’s agroforestry. Thus, you can’t run pipelines through it because it’s essentially considered a food forest now.

ISABELLE BUTERA: Students also learn about the relationships different tribes have with maple trees.

ZELLA MILFRED: These discussions are especially meaningful to Indigenous students like Weinberg sophomore Athena GoingSnake, who is Muscogee Creek and a member of the Cherokee Nation. She grew up hearing stories about trees, leaving them offerings like tobacco and talking to them.

ATHENA GOINGSNAKE: We build really meaningful relationships with plants and animals. We call them our relatives because we see them as more than a separate piece of the environment, a separate piece of nature like we’re kind of one thing. So that’s one nice thing about the class. People are giving life to the trees, and it’s not just a source of oxygen.

ISABELLE BUTERA: Twocrow said she especially values the opportunity to take a class that centers Indigenous perspectives with other Native students and a Native professor at NU, a predominantly white institution. She’s also appreciated learning about the history of trees on campus — some of which have been here for more than 100 years.

ISABELLA TWOCROW: Every time I’m by them, I’m like, “Wow, you’ve seen so much,” and like thinking about how the tree probably didn’t have many Indigenous people around it for a few decades, and no Indigenous people on this campus to take care of them and be with them.

ISABELLE BUTERA: Twocrow said she is grateful that even after she graduates, she knows the Native students in the class will continue to learn about and care for the trees on campus.

ZELLA MILFRED: The class covers more than the history of trees — it also includes a unit on the sugar industry’s political control in the United States and its ties to Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Tobacco. They learn through an economic lens how the maple syrup industry is impacted by the very same sugar levels they measure.

ISABELLE BUTERA: For instance, lower sugar levels mean the sap needs to be cooked for longer. This requires more financial and labor resources. And now that students have gone through the process from start to finish, some have a new appreciation for maple syrup.

ISABELLA TWOCROW: When I’m at a store, I’m looking at all the sugar there and I’m like “Where is this coming from? And how is it being produced?” And seeing this like one little thing of maple syrup at the store, I’m like, “Dang you’ve been through a lot. Huh! You came from a tree all up in Canada just to end up on this shelf here in Evanston, Illinois.”


ISABELLE BUTERA: The data collected from the class is compiled into a spreadsheet and added to the campus’ tree GIS system, which holds the entire history of the trees on our campus. This student-driven data record helps student researchers and NU arborists track changes in the trees well into the future.

ZELLA MILFRED: Suzukovich III says a major goal for the class was to provide students with hands-on lab experience, especially for students outside of STEM fields.

ELI SUZUKOVICH III: I’ve had students in the past who were told by their families they weren’t smart enough to do science. And then they took this class, and they’re like, “Oh, I can do it.” They aren’t just talking about food sovereignty — they are actually doing it.

ISABELLE BUTERA: I shadowed one of the Friday classes. But when I showed up, there was no maple syrup to be found. Instead, the class was in a chemistry lab in the basement of the Technological Institute, or Tech. Students sifted through soil samples to measure the heavy metal content.

ISABELLE BUTERA: In between weighing his samples, I talked to Communication senior Eddie Ko. He says he had an interest in taking the class for a long time.

EDDIE KO: This class, it was a dream of mine since freshman year, when I walked around campus and I saw the people standing next to the trees. Three years ago I said, “That’s gonna be me one day,” and look at me now.

ISABELLE BUTERA: Incredible, in a lab coat and everything.

EDDIE KO: This part I actually didn’t expect, so this is a fun little surprise.

ISABELLE BUTERA: Why is it important to you as an environmental science major to have this field work and also fieldwork on campus?

EDDIE KO: I think as an environmental science major, we talked about fieldwork a lot, and in a lot of classes, it’s very theoretical, where you’re given kind of a spreadsheet of data. But to be able to have the experience of actually collecting that data yourself was really really cool. To kind of know where the data comes from, to kind of be the person behind the data collecting it — out in like the 20 degrees weather standing with your thermometer — it was a really really cool kind of hands-on experience.

EDDIE KO: Go maple syrup!


ZELLA MILFRED: When the buckets fill up, students carry them home and are responsible for storing and boiling down the sap, which evaporates the water. A sweet syrup is left behind. McCormick senior Ilan Gasko is an environmental engineering major. He stored his batch in his freezer, then he let it thaw for more than 24 hours. Eventually, he filtered out the debris with a strainer before cooking. When I visited his apartment, he showed me the two half-filled Mason jars of syrup he’s produced after cooking down seven gallons of sap, which took him more than 13 hours.

ILAN GASKO: This apartment becomes a sauna because you’re boiling up all this water, so it’s seven gallons of steam in the air.

ZELLA MILFRED: This difficult process has given Gasko a new appreciation of the diversity of tree species throughout campus.

ILAN GASKO: I think it’s really cool to walk around campus and be much more aware of what we have on campus and its function. So that was really interesting to see all the value in things I hadn’t seen value in before.

ZELLA MILFRED: Any extra collected sap that goes unused can always be given back to the tree.

ELI SUZUKOVICH III: If you pour the sap back at the base of the tree, the tree will just reabsorb all of it because it is water.

ISABELLE BUTERA: Many variables impact the taste of the student’s final products. Suzukovich III encourages his class to consider how NU’s underground infrastructure and Chicago’s urbanization may be impacting their findings and the taste. But one key mystery remains.

ELI SUZUKOVICH III: If there’s no polar vortex, our syrup ends up tasting like butterscotch. And if you go west of Sheridan Road, everything just tastes like regular maple syrup.


ZELLA MILFRED: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Zella Milfred.

ISABELLE BUTERA: And I’m Isabelle Butera. Thanks for listening to another episode of Brainstorm. This episode was reported and produced by Zella Milfred and myself. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Erica Schmitt, the digital managing editors are Joanne Haner and Olatunji Osho-Williams and the editor in chief is Alex Perry.

ZELLA MILFRED: Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @isabelle_butera

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @ZMilfred

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