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Groves of Plenty: Maple Trees and Meaning in Canadian Society, 1900-1945

Thu, April 11, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Champaign


In the early twentieth century, representatives of the Canadian Department of Agriculture lamented the regrettable state of affairs as settler farmers cut down groves of sugar maple in order to reap short-term gains from high lumber prices while ignoring the potential longer-term economic benefits to be had from the development of the maple syrup and sugar industry. Not only did these “kings of the forest” need to be saved, their stands needed to be expanded in order for Canada to reach its full and as-yet untapped potential as a global sugar powerhouse. Sugar maples had both economic worth and cultural significance. Maple groves represented financial opportunity as government officials, associations, and farm-producers cultivated an increasingly profitable niche for maple syrup as a high-end sweetener. Sugarbushes also signified a meaningful landscape linked to wider values around nature, health, community, and rural identity, not only within the four main producing provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, but also nationally.
This paper charts the development of the sugar maple grove as a recognizable and idealized forest aesthetic in different regions of Canada. It examines how the imagery and experience of the sugarbush helped commodify and sell maple syrup to Canadians and to international markets. It also explores the central role that woodlot management knowledges and technologies played in maintaining these forested areas and as well as the active push to obscure or hide the presence of these human manipulations in order to preserve what government officials called the “romantic side” of maple sugar production. Maple syrup’s growth as a profitable foodstuff was not just about the value of its sweet essence, it was also about an interaction with a particular forest landscape that held and cultivated meaning for those producing and consuming the sylvan experience and the sugary goodness.