Spring is calling, and the Sugarman is here.
I’ve been aware of him for some weeks now, off and on. He brought his tools over in January sometime, and has been putting in quiet shifts ever since. But I have not really seen the fruits of his labor till today. Today, this eruption of sunshine in the last week of March: the appointed day, it turns out, for the festival that he orchestrates each year. It is a sweet, sticky saturnalia in miniature, and in the tiny corner of the world just outside my front door, it officially rings in the season.
The Sugarman is always dressed to the nines. Red cap and cravat, white epaulets on his black jacket, and a fine pastel yellow shirt that sets him apart from his kin in delicacy of taste. His kin are the other members of the woodpecker family, though that is a name that he disdains, in favor of one that honors his peculiar craft. This is the yellow-bellied sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius: a name we laugh at, because it stirs something in us.
I know that he is male from the red cravat, but it is also a reasonable assumption to make in these parts. He and his brothers cannot afford to venture much further south than this. Soon enough they will be packing up and following the spring – to the Adirondacks, to the Boundary Waters, to a thousand other wooded places – where they will hurriedly jostle to stake out territories. Their future mates, currently scattered as far as Panama, will take their time returning and will expect things to be sorted out when they do.
No one on Earth is more expert at the business of managing trees for sap. It is in the winter months that his skill shines the brightest, for this is a time when other creatures with a sweet tooth are either fast asleep or far away. But the Sugarman knows precisely which trees manufacture the most sucrose. He knows at which times of year they do it, and in which parts of their bodies they hide it, and he knows the extremely subtle art of how to get it out. How does he know? Is he born knowing? His secrets are many.
As a nestling in his tree hole he first tasted that nectar of the forest-gods. His parents took turns delivering protein-packed confections to their fuzzy brood – ants, inchworms, beetles, each hauled to the nearest sap-tree and carefully coated in syrup. By the end of his first month of life he was on his own, drilling his first sap wells.
This is no mechanical grunt work. The design of the well depends on where the sap is running. In midsummer this is just beneath the outer bark of the tree, in the phloem tissue that transports newly spun sugars from the busy leaves down to the roots. Tapping that flow calls for shallow, square wells, meticulously laid out in a grid to maximize coverage while avoiding crippling damage to the plant. After the growing season – and especially in the late winter and early spring – the action is deeper, in the sapwood, where the tissue called xylem pipes a more watered-down blend from belowground storage up to the budding green parts. Now the bird will shift to drilling deep, round boreholes in efficient horizontal rows.
But that is only the beginning. The sapsucker knows to target the old and the weak, trees suffering from damage or disease, whose sap will be fortified with healing proteins. He knows to target wounds on a trunk, drilling just above the scar to tap into the sweetest flow. He knows how much maintenance a well needs in order to keep producing, and spends much of his day making the rounds of his sap fields. Hapless ornithologists have tried replicating his methods without success. He hides some secret weapon, a thinning agent in his saliva perhaps.
Most importantly, from among the dozens of species he might sample in his life, he knows which ones are the most reliable producers, and at which seasons. The maples stand out, especially in the lean winter days before most trees are flowing. The oddness of maples is something we humans have only begun to understand. We know that they spike their xylem with extra sugar to serve as antifreeze, girding them for colder climes than the average deciduous plant. They also sport gas bubbles in their sapwood, which build and release pressure during freeze-thaw cycles – effectively squeezing sap out of the tree under the right conditions.
The tree in my front yard is a maple, of a respectable size and age. When we bought the house I worried about the blackish discoloration on the trunk and lower limbs, filing it away to investigate later. Now I see it is the mark of the Sugarman. The excess sap that drips from his wells encourages the growth of a sooty mold. With this new knowledge I can often pick out a sapsucker tree at a great distance, and the telltale pearl-strings of the xylem wells will confirm it.
Today, on this first day of true spring, it is the butterflies that get my attention. A pair of Question Marks are whirling around the maple branches, flashing their burnt orange upperwings. They have spent the winter with that color hidden away, asleep in bark crannies with only their underwings showing, mottled and ragged-edged in a perfect dead-leaf impression.
For a temperate zone butterfly, overwintering as an adult is far from the norm. The sapsucker helps to make this possible, and indeed helps to shape the Question Mark’s entire unorthodox lifestyle. I have never seen this species on a flower, though I have caught it on a road-killed possum, on a pile of coyote scat, and on rotting persimmons, so drunk on the ferment that it would not budge when touched. This is a creature of Dionysian tastes, drawn to death and debauchery. When the sweet blood oozes from a March maple, though few other butterflies will risk emergence, the Question Mark is tempted from its slumber.
Now I see the Sugarman himself, chiseling in his precise way at the trunk’s far side, lapping up syrup with his strange feathery tongue. The butterflies follow in his wake, lingering over droplets of the sweet stuff, and breaking off here and there to chase each other in giddy spirals. The closer I approach the tree, the more its skin seems to come alive. Weevils and carpenter ants materialize to meander over the cratered landscape. Hoverflies, paper wasps and bluebottles buzz into view, cruising from well to well. A scrap of bark rearranges itself into a big-eyed brown jumping spider, which promptly launches itself into space after a fly, unspooling a silken dragline behind itself.
In the crotch of the trunk the sap overflow has collected into a rivulet of sorts, creeping glacially towards the ground. Here there is an unearthly happening: a swarm of springtails, denizens of the underworld drawn to the light by this fleeting bonanza. Under normal circumstances these little animalcules, almost but not quite insects, teem unseen in the interstices of the soil; there could be a hundred thousand of them in the square meter at my feet. But this type of springtail, Hypogastrura, knows a trick that emboldens it to come out of hiding on days like these. Like the maple, it has antifreeze in its blood. (The vast aggregations that sometimes appear on sunny winter days have earned it the name Snow Flea.)
The crevasse full of springtails presents an unsettling sight. Individually they are tiny, adorable silicone toys, bluish and pod-legged and bouncing unpredictably into the air. Collectively they writhe like maggots in flesh. The white individuals scattered in the swarm turn out to be empty exuviae, dead skins cast off during frenetic growth. The price of living abundantly is being surrounded by your own ghosts.
The abundance is short-lived – in its current form, at least. The festival is soon over, just about overnight in fact, but the grip of winter has been loosened for good. This will be the last time I see the Sugarman this season. Having opened the floodgates of spring, he is off to ride the wave northward.
The maple is left to heal its wounds. Though I have painted the bird as an expert manager, from the tree’s point of view he is monstrous, a vampire. His notoriety among some foresters may be mostly undeserved, but the truth is that sapsucker trees do not always survive. And as meticulous as he has been, he has also incited a riot and left behind a crime scene.
Perhaps the best way to see him is as an outlaw hero, a trickster, plundering a secret horde, spreading the wealth to the starving masses. He is Promethean in his defiance of the forest-gods, and in the revelatory magnitude of his gift. He changes the whole equation. Just ask the hummingbird, that fairy spirit of the tropics, who thanks to the sapsucker is able to transport the tropics as far as Canada. During the early growing season, there are precious few nectar-bearing flowers that can support her and her brood. So in some areas at least, she makes her nest close to a sapsucker tree and subsists almost wholly on sap until breeding is done.
What creatures out there are waiting to receive the gift of our overabundance? What subterranean flows are waiting to be tapped? To live a weird and messy life is to risk damage and invite contempt. It is also, sometimes, to open new conduits for life to travel: to liberate energy from its timeworn channels. To summon in the spring.
Image (c) Melissa McMasters, CC BY 2.0