I have a long and variable history with slingshots. My first awareness of this marvelous device was the discovery of my grandfather’s Wham-O in a kitchen drawer. This venerable device was a beautiful hardwood Y-shaped handle with big flat rubber bands and a big leather pouch. I barely got my hand on it when Gram wham-oed my hand with a wooden spoon.
I spent the next few days pestering Gramp about slingshots. He would not overrule the grandmotherly veto but regaled me with tales of cutting a forked stick, tying on elastics and downing charging lions at 300 yards. Actually, my fertile imagination might have added some of the lion part but my consideration focused on that realm.
Finding and cutting a forked stick was problematic. I finally located a perfect specimen — a major crotch of my Gram’s young peach tree which I severed with her kitchen meat saw. The resulting fireworks convinced me she was not in support of the slingshot venture so asking her for assistance with the elastic bit was out of the question. I was really interested in the huge rubber band that held the cloth over her bread-raising bowl but a stern warning sent me off to other pastures. My solution was to hack off the waist band from my underpants.
The slingshot produced was a thing of beauty. My accuracy suffered somewhat from the limited choice of ammo insofar as after the peach tree caper I was confined to the house. I found the big Carpathian walnuts from the nut bowl worked pretty well. The downside was their propensity to ricochet dramatically. I set up a book on the sideboard as a target (“Death in the Long Grass” by Peter Hathaway Capstick had a beautiful charging lion on the cover). I made a pretty good hit on Simba but the nut then bounced off a big brass candlestick and scored a direct hit on the dining room window.
It was a heck of a crash.
From my perspective, once the wooden spoon part was over, it was a great experience because Gram instructed Gramp to take me out back and shoot out into the garden where I could not hurt anything. My Uncle Bill was working on fixing the window while Gramp and I fired the marvelous Wham-O at tin cans using glass marbles as ammo. This was nirvana until I shot slightly over the target. The cat’s eye hit the previously insulted peach tree and ricocheted right back past us. Unfortunately, right in back of us was the new pane of glass Uncle Bill intended to install, leaning against the side of the house. All three of us made a run for it and spent the afternoon fishing while Gram simmered down.
I got along better with slingshots as I got older, graduating to wrist rockets and even scoring some wins in movable target competitions. However, the epitome was reached this weekend when PC came to help take down a big, nasty, four-trunked, dying soft maple tree threatening to fall over, smashing the well and Dr. Wifey’s car. We had to get a rope into the upper limbs of the tree in order to rope its fall in the opposite direction of its inclination.
His solution was a 6-foot long pole holding a giant slingshot, which fired a weighted bag hooked to a line up and over the limbs. We were pretty busy but someday when we are not fully involved, I would like to see how far that contraption would send a golf ball or green apple. I know we could reach my brother’s pond and I bet with a little practice adjusting the elevation we could come pretty close to Route 40.
The afternoon was relatively warm when we got the trees down and we were surprised to see the amount of sap flowing from the trunk and stump. Some of our local maple syrup producers have already collected some sap and a couple have actually boiled off some syrup. We take this process for granted nowadays but it is a relatively recent invention.
One thing that accompanied a switch from hunter gatherer economy to a more sedentary agricultural lifestyle was the production of fired clay pottery. These pots were far too heavy to haul around but if you were living in a semi-permanent village, they were pretty handy devices. Throughout the northern portions of this continent, pottery assemblages sometimes contained, along with the utilitarian ware, some very large and often ornately decorated vessels. These showed signs of being used over open fires and some have suggested these were used for the syrup production that many groups venerated.
A factor I find really interesting is that not all of the aboriginally produced syrup came from sugar maple trees. The sugar maple, the New York state tree, has the highest sugar content, making it the most economically feasible syrup to produce. If one is only concerned with producing a sugar to use for food preservation, enhancement of bland winter foods, or even medicinal purposes it is not necessarily a big problem to simply boil the sap for a longer period.
The tree we cut or any of the soft maples (red, silver, black, big leaf and big tooth, for example) make a perfectly serviceable syrup. Depending on the area where the group lived, there was syrup made from box elder, hickory or white birch. Black walnut makes a very distinctive syrup but white walnut (around here we call it butternut) has a sap production and sugar content that very closely matches that of the sugar maple — roughly 2 percent.
White birch, yellow birch, black birch and gray birch produce a really interesting mild-flavored syrup. The syrup from black birch is the major ingredient in the popular soft drink birch beer.
Far more surprising to me was two of the most popular trees used by indigenous peoples in North America to produce syrups. Both were used in making medicinal elixirs. These two sacred producers of nectar of the Gods? Sycamore and hop hornbeam (ironwood). In some areas, sycamores were tapped exclusively and the sap never comingled with maple because sycamore syrup has a very delicate butterscotch flavor.
Nowadays, we are starting to see a resurgence of the less known tree syrups because some of the larger producers are using a reverse osmosis process to remove much of the water content before starting to boil, making the lower sugar content much less of an issue in the profitable production of syrup.
Interestingly enough, I was looking out the back window, contemplating how much potential syrup was oozing out onto the ground and deciding it was worth it to see the super slingshot in action. In the midst of this reverie, Dr. Wifey asked what I was doing. I replied: trying to decide if I could hit the state road with a green apple fired from the slingshot. Once again, I got wham-oed with, you guessed it, a wooden spoon.