Lately I’ve been spending most of my time at or around the freezing point. Tall old maples, mixing with basswoods and oaks, head on up toward the sky, intertwining their fingers up above to roof us while leaving only their trunks down below for us to wander among. I can see all the way down to the lake, where, past its fringe of dense cattail marsh, the ice is still thick but slowly darkening. Last year spring came in February and never left. This year it still hasn’t found its way and there’s only a week until April.
Up the hill, Independence Road carries its affairs distantly by, and sometimes brings us visitors. Down here we’re doing our forest things. The heart of sugarbush is the camp—a fire circle, a kitchen defined only by a couple tables and two portable propane stoves, and big tents for equipment and people. My little tent is off to the side a little, and my bike rests against a tree. I rode it in again this year, a three-hour trip. For some reason I can hardly imagine coming out to sugarbush, at least for the first time each year, without riding the whole way from the city. As I go the roads become country roads and the city sloughs away.
My tent is just big enough to sit up inside. After I find the will power to crawl out of my sleeping each morning, I don’t go back inside it until night, and that’s as close as I get to “inside” all day. I’ve been invited to houses a few times in the sixteen days since I got here, and today I’ve biked to a library, so I occasionally get warm, but mostly I live amid the slow gathering of spring, the sun sometimes a little brighter and sometimes clouded over, the snow sometimes melting and sometimes (like today) piling back up.
I’m far from alone, though. Though they haven’t slept here because there’s been no need to keep sap boiling overnight, Deb and Pebaamibines have been here just about every day, and each day at least a few other people have come out to help out with the slow trickle of work that there is to do while we wait for the big run of sap to finally start. Each Sunday Pebaamibines holds a ceremony—dozens of people show up with pies, stews, and wild rice dishes, and we all sit in a circle singing songs to invite the spirits to eat from it. Once they’ve taken their invisible share and we’ve thanked them and thanked the four directions, the water, the earth, and the sky, and once Pebaamibines’s pipe has helped him speak whatever invocation is right—“I never know what the pipe is going to say,” he says—we all eat too, and talk to friends long-lost and new. Last year I felt like I barely understood what was going on; this year, after two weeks, I’ve finally realized I can make some friends here.
School groups come, usually one every weekday. A school bus will park up there on the road and out will pour a stream of brightly-coated kindergarteners, or a gaggle of high-schoolers, or kids anywhere in between. They’ve come from Native schools in the Cities, like Bdote and Anishinabe Academy, and from schools further afield that have Native student groups, like one in Fridley (a northern suburb).
“I don’t know this stuff! I’m a city Indian!” one kid told her friend while they were sitting by the campfire. He’d lived on the rez for five years, but she’d hardly even camped. There’s living on the rez, where most people are poor but on the other hand they aren’t constantly living amid the settler culture. Then there’s being Indian in the city, where most Indians are still poor, and while they’re just barely keeping afloat they don’t have the energy to put into maintaining a whole separate and distinct way of life while the billboards and buildings all around them are full of mostly-white mainstream-culture faces. Some of the kindergarteners who come out here have never even been in a forest before.
For this reason Pebaam has hung up four eagle feathers from the roof of his big green army tent (the ’Baam Shelter) and set up benches inside, turning it into a teaching tent. And he invites kids inside to learn things no one has ever taught them about their heritage. He talks about the Seven Grandfather Teachings and what his eagle whistle does, and whether these kids remember the specific details of everything, they at least remember: there’s something profound and meaningful, and I’m connected to it. I heard a middle-schooler ask him on her way out, “I don’t know what tribe I am. How can I find out?” I wonder how long she’d been waiting to find someone she trusted enough to ask that question.
Slowly, I’m figuring out how I fit into this. I start the fire in the morning and brew sap coffee when I think of it, and I tend the boiling after everyone leaves until the flame turns into embers. But what’s more at the heart of why I’m here is that I’m learning too, and the things Pebaam has taught to the kids, he’s taught to me and Deb too. When I went on a fast with Pebaamibines last May, I also made a commitment, which I’ll have to write about another time, to live the values of Anishinaabe culture, the life of interconnectedness with the universe and its spirits that’s encompassed in the word mino-bimaadizi, to live a good life. I’m coming to realize how much I have to learn.
And I have, here and there, been able to teach some of the kids some of that—but I think the way I help them most is just by doing sugarbush: by showing that here is a person who believes there’s worth in taking time out of standard life to just walk around collecting sap and boil it down into syrup. By being outside and by living both the give and the take with nature—through gathering sap and leaving tobacco offerings and prayers.
While I was at ARC, I was in a familiar setting, a big house with meal times and familiar culture, and found it easy to understand what it means to be present. At sugarbush it’s taken me a little longer. I’m out in the snow all the time, and I’m a foreigner, an immigrant as long as I live no matter how much I eventually learn about how to live in this culture. But I’m coming to understand how to live here too, to help heal wounds, to help reconnect the disconnected in whatever small way I can. This is what I’m here for.