The Sweet Chill of Winter: Reflections on Land-Based Research


2015 sugar production

Winter has finally come to Mississauga territory. Over the last few days we have felt the temperature drop and stoked our fires a little more consistently. The long term forecast is calling for lower temperatures from now until spring. And unlike most of Southern Ontario, I’m glad.

You see, the freakishly warm temperatures in December and January had my family asking: will we sugar this year? The unusually balmy air means that the ice has been vacant of ice huts and much of the ice fishing that usually takes place. The lack of snow means that the ground hasn’t had a chance to rest, the trees haven’t had a chance to sleep, to prepare for the rush of spring. My body has been as stymied as my Missisauga landscape has been, as it has been unsure of what season it’s in, and what season it should be preparing for. Last year at this time my family was deep in preparations to tap trees; we were in conversation with fellow community members about when we would be tapping. This year, the balmy weather has dictated for us, and the trees: sugar is off the table.

While Ontarians have been thanking the gods of climate change for the warm weather, this Mississauga girl is wondering where her food is going to come from. Because, what the grocery-store centric food system lets us forget is that in these parts, winter has been integral to our Indigenous food systems. The seasons seem to flow together so that the land is able to provide us with all the things we need to make this place our home. With imported colonial ideologies and laws, modes of governance, and yes, imported food, it is easy to gloss over the place-based Indigenous culture that has grown out of this territory. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good avocado as much as the next Indigenista, so I’m not harping on the fact that foods from other places are brought here. I’m concerned with the fact that the temperature rising is disrupting our Indigenous food system. Plus, let’s not lie to ourselves and say we didn’t have Indigenous trade networks before the present manifestation of the dominant food system. We did. I don’t need your capitalism to get my avocados.

What I’m worried about is that this year my family won’t be reinvigorating our land-based relations with the maple trees, and each other. We won’t be re-learning the lessons taught through the maple sugaring that Leanne Simpson (2014) has described. While last year I was doing “field work” in my family’s sugarbush; this year, I am talking about how we won’t be tapping trees. My Indigenous research method of engaging in Nishinaabeg practices on the land (see for example the calls to action and research practices of Indigenous scholars: Alfred and Corntassel, 2006; Simpson, 2011, 2014) faces the major obstacle of changing temperatures and unpredictable seasons. Perhaps the trees are not as confused as I am, because, as botanist and Potawatomi scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer has pointed out, “Maples have a far more sophisticated system for detecting spring than we do” (2013, 65). It is possible that the trees know exactly what is going on and don’t buy in to my worrying. Though, given scientific data on how the maple trees are doing, I doubt they aren’t worried. Longitudinal studies show that the sugaring season is shorter, the maple syrup production less, and that maple trees are likely to be extirpated in our region within the next 100 years (Murphy, Chretien and Brown, 2009). I cannot imagine a world without maple syrup, but what I am truly concerned about here are the Nishinaabeg principles that won’t be practiced through this generations old endeavor.

If Indigenous governance arises out of the land on which the nations are made, what happens to that nation’s governance when the practices are not possible? What happens when the practices are made impossible, through the extension of colonial domination that is the long-term shift of the natural environment? Where do we locate justice, when the violence is not a spectacular event, or a personified wrong-doing, but the slow and steady rising of the thermostat (see Rob Nixon, 2011 on slow violence)? People might miss their maple syrup if the maple trees lose their seasons, but Nishnaabeg will be missing an entire pedagogical practice.

So I’m glad to see the temperature drop. I’m glad to think that, if it gets as cold for as long as is being predicted, I’ll be out walking on the lake in my snowshoes in a week. And I’m relieved that there is at least a little snow and a little freezing to give our territory a much-needed rest.


Works Cited

Alfred, T. and Corntassel, J. 2005. Being Indigenous: Resurgences Against Contemporary Colonialism. Government & Opposition 40(4), pp. 597–614.

Murphy, B. Chrétien, A. and Brown, L. 2009. How Do We Come to Know? Exploring Maple Syrup Production and Climate Change in Near North Ontario. Geography.   Paper 2.

Nixon, R. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Simpson, L. 2014. Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3(3), pp. 1-25.

Simpson, L. 2011. Dancing on our Turtle’s Back. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishers.

Wall Kimmerer, R. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.


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