On climate change, transitioning, gender, and the vanishing sweetness of maple trees.
On theNatural History of Destruction
tap tap tap
For me, this was the appeal of transitioning. The ability to track and measure and watch for hair growth and octave drops in voice and the redistribution of fat from hips to stomach, the way people started to ignore me in public, how men spoke to me differently. Eventually the changes slowed down and there was less to track; I moved away from studying the physical details and shifted, over time, to focus on the climate of my self.
Time ages a body and changes its shape like a frost heave buckles asphalt, expanding in the cold and then leaving it to crumble and collapse in the thaw. Only age is linear, and there is no going back, whereas I can move around inside of gender, forwards and back, kicking off against its walls like a small above-ground pool, returning to recognizable terrain when things get too uncomfortable or unsafe.
The story arcs I learned in school about rising and falling action hold little relevance here: The action is up and down, hot and cold as mercury in the thermometers we no longer use.
Bud break refers to the moment when the sap stops running and the tiny scrunched-up packets of green and red maple leaves burst out of their pistils, but it sounds like a bad euphemism for losing one’s virginity. Many aspects of sap production have, historically, been described in feminine terms. Perhaps it’s because of the way it depends on the mercurial shifts between freeze and thaw, night and day, winter and spring, the unpredictable fluctuations providing the engine behind the gravity-defying flow—and in science, most things not clearly understood are described with a feminine bent, like the way that the sea—“unpredictable,” “seductive”—was so often written about as if it were female in natural history accounts of previous centuries.
If I’m telling stories about seasons and gender and change, then I should reach for a tool to pry apart bark and skin and get at the tantalizing meaning just below the surface. The spile and the speculum are similar in shape and appearance, metal tubes that taper at one end to allow for ease of insertion: With a delicate touch, the spile is tapped into the rough bark of the sugar maple to allow sap to flow out, while the speculum is inserted by the ob-gyn to stretch apart the vaginal canal and allow the swabbing of the cervix during a Pap smear. Plastic versions of both are now modern and more popular than their metallic predecessors, albeit for different reasons (not as cold; cheaper).
I have difficulty believing that tapping a tree does not hurt, in part because the speculum, and, really, vaginal penetration of any kind, has always been a multiplied hurt for me: One, it just plain hurts; and then it hurts to hold a hurt like that so close to the center of me; and it hurts a third time, as a trans person, to have this pain reallocated in doctors’ offices and web forums to cis women. When I started transitioning, I would sit in the fertility clinic—the only place where hormone replacement therapy could be prescribed to me at the time—among the many pregnant or hopefully pregnant people, feeling extremely out of place, feeling poorly understood, like that “feminine” sea.
Now, after close to ten years on testosterone, my body has become a recalcitrant trunk; dried and atrophied tissues refuse to allow the speculum through; and anything that attempts to force its way in results in the most exquisite pain imaginable. This is unfortunate, partly because I already experience frequent, painful cramping, a common but poorly understood experience shared by many trans men on testosterone which some doctors say is related to increased uterine musculature pulling on surrounding organs. The recommended solution by my physician is a hysterectomy. This is not a measure I’m against on the grounds of preserved fertility; I don’t fear losing the ability to have children, and I don’t mind adding more scars to my body—although these days they can go in through three tiny incisions around your belly button, leaving you lighter one uterus with almost no scarring at all.
Rather, I worry that whatever shriveled feeling my ovaries have left to impart will be lost to me. I’ve been a man for a long time, but it’s always been the layering that’s been the important part, not pinpointing the time when I became a man—at birth, with the first hormone injection, or the last time I had a period. The feminine has always been a part of my personal climate, and while I don’t subscribe to essentialist notions of gender residing in specific body parts, removing this part of me had never been part of my plan.
I wonder if some trees have problems with the slow siphoning of sap, if the tap tap tap on their tin buckets reminds them that they are a conduit for sweetness in this world, unasked.
This isn’t about sap and flow and blood and menstruation as inherently feminine things to escape, but the fact, instead, that we all have a territory to which we dream of returning, trees and people both. And as our climate shifts, changing our homes and the seasons we grew up with, we’ll need to find new ways of living with and telling stories about how things used to be and change in the land.
Within the next century, and likely long before then, the Northeast will almost certainly cease to be the prime climate for maple sugar production. Already, scientists and maple producers are seeing signs of limb mortality and bark grown too tough to let the sap squeak by, like a kitchen sponge dried up on the sink. Debates rage at the University of Vermont’s Maple Research Center as to whether or not bud break will move earlier and earlier due to climate change, or if it’s merely dependent on the length of daylight and therefore untouchable.
There is so much hand-wringing about bud break and syrup reserves for lean years, and yet so few people, by comparison, seem to be concerned about something much more important, to me: the stories slowly being lost about one tree’s unique ability to thrive and create sweetness during a disappearing season of transition.
In college, I knew someone somehow related to the painter Grandma Moses; this is perhaps unsurprising, given that, in a Genghis-Khan-like scenario, 75 percent or more of New Englanders carry some Grandma Moses in their blood, symbolically. Her folksy interpretations of New England agricultural scenes have gone through variable periods of popular and critical appreciation since her work was discovered in a drugstore by a New York art dealer in 1938. It’s hard to imagine a time when thrift stores existed without her detailed two-dimensional planes of figure skaters and farmers and sleighs full of children.
Sugaring Off is Grandma Moses’s rendition of what it was like when an entire community came together in late winter to boil sap. The painting is dominated by the brilliant white of the snow and the pallor of the sky. Children run every which way, careful to avoid a large cauldron of sap bubbling over and orange and red fire. Delicate, lacy maples bare of leaves punctuate the scene. There is no hint of the war that was raging just outside the frame when it was painted in 1943—the orange and pointy flames lap at the bottom of the cauldron, scorched black, while Sebald’s firestorm rages offscreen.
The image is sweet, in the generic sense of the word; it also depicts the concentration of sweetness in the boiling sap, therefore doubly deserving of the descriptor saccharine. Saccharine, a pejorative meaning overly sentimental, derives from the same linguistic root as sugar, the Sanskrit word sarkara, meaning gravel or grit. It is a decidedly textured descriptor of sweetness.
Sometimes, when I’m home alone, I will sip it straight from the jar. The syrup coats my mouth and throat, and for a short while after even air tastes sweeter. Will maples miss the land? Will they miss the feeling of slowly being drained, or will they celebrate, as I did, when I stopped the flow?
The maples where I live now are broad-leaved, foliage often reaching the diameter of a dinner plate, and their trunks grow gnarly with age and moss. They support rope swings and many smaller creatures. I don’t know the details of their relationship with the sugar maple, though if it exists it is likely distant and diluted, as they are unsweetened and untapped; what their future holds is unclear, their uselessness placing them beyond concern.
My future in the Northeast is as uncertain as the maples’. The forces that may push us out—rising temperatures, warmth and hate caused by ten billion combustions every day in the hearts of greedy men (for they have mostly been men)—are already here. Maybe this is about bodies and trees once planted in the land and now forced to move, despite their rooted histories. Or maybe it’s about finding ways to mourn the loss of green glossy maple leaves in summer, sweetness on pancakes, and other ways of being in the world. I’m trying to find another way of remaining legible and physical, while holding mourning and joy in equal measures.
At its heart, a season is a story told to predict the movement of a year, when to plant and harvest crops, when to hibernate and when to move on. Now, in the throes of climate change, the story of seasons is being revised: scorching days in March, wintry blizzards in May, stronger and more frequent storms at any time of year. The story is changing, fracturing.
We face the challenge of telling a new story: the story of a larger season, one more confusing and less straightforward, with significant changes that are already affecting everyone around the globe, a new season of suffering and adaptation and altered ranges and resilience which, if we listen closely, can tell us something new about ourselves. I write about climate change and transition in the same breath because they are the two dominant forces that have shaped my life in almost every way. I think of them as part of the same process. Each—gender, climate—has historically required a knowledge of what came before in order to define their characteristics, whether that was biological sex or weather patterns.
But these a priori categories can no longer be relied upon, thanks to changing social and environmental climates. Some groups have seized upon this moment of transformation to forecast an inescapable future of doom: the Deep Adaptation movement, for instance, urges humanity to prepare for the coming precarity and inevitable global catastrophe as climate becomes more unpredictable and resources scarce, deliberately misrepresenting the science behind climate change in the most negative light possible. Meanwhile, in the present, new anti-trans laws are floated daily in the United States, and conservative talking heads muse loudly and dangerously about the “loss” of women to a transgender “craze,” our existence itself a fearful new climate to these lawmakers. Such fearmongering would have us believe that the breaking down of old categories spells disaster for the human race, rather than a chance at rewriting past wrongs.
I’m not here to draw any conclusions about the future myself. Instead, I am simply looking at the maple and wondering where it will grow next, how its meaning might change were its physiological rhythms no longer so uniquely adapted to the spring season, and thus no longer so easily exploited. I am simply looking at myself and how much change I’ve had to adapt to in order to still be here, how change has become a part of who I think I am; I’m looking at other trans people, too, seeing how we’ve continually shaped and reinvented ourselves, and I can’t see anything but hope in that.
At its heart, a season is a story told to predict the movement of a year. Now, in the throes of climate change, the story of seasons is being revised.
Trees and people live in transition now, perhaps permanently, and I do not think this is all bad. Such a shift in climatic thinking requires accepting loss sometimes, and remembering where we’ve been, what we’ve done wrong, and a willingness to find new things beautiful. It requires recognizing the beauty in new definitions of gender, allowing the expansiveness and creativity of trans people to revise what we thought was known about gender in the past. It requires adaptation to new seasonal rhythms, yes, but adaptation with an awareness that this is not the first time whole societies have been forced to adapt to change they didn’t want, and a willingness to listen to those communities with much more respect than we have in the past.
It may not seem like it, but the stories we tell now will one day become the foundations of new myths, the Ishtars and Demeters and firestorms of the past made new once again in narrative. Perhaps future civilizations will tell stories in which wildly oscillating weather patterns at the turn of the twenty-first century were the result of great planetwide suffering. Or they might inherit a legend that tells how great change sparked great cooperation in nourishing the land and each other because, as is often the case with transition, the possibility for new stories opened up.
Callum Angus is the author of A Natural History of Transition (Metonymy Press 2021). His work has appeared in LA Review of Books, Orion, Nat. Brut, The Common and elsewhere. He has received support from Lambda Literary and Signal Fire Foundation for the Arts, and he holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He edits the journal smoke and mold.