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  • Betsy Larkin

The Maple Syrup Project Turns 23!

On Friday, March 4, the Growing Center hosted more than 80 preschoolers from our partners, Kesher Nevatim; Dandelion Montessori; Pooh and Friends Learning Center; and Allen Street Head Start; plus lots of volunteers who helped boil sap for 12+ hours at our annual Maple Boil.

We also welcomed staff from Early Head Start and a local Girl Scout Troop working on their tree badge. This educational event, which was not open to the public this year, has origins stretching back more than two decades and was historically a collaborative project spearheaded by the Growing Center but involving lots of organizations and city departments, including the Somerville Public Schools. The fire box and evaporator pan which we still use for boiling was built by the SHS metal workshop class of 2006!

The tradition continues this year. Since early February, volunteers have helped collect sap from eleven trees on the Tufts University campus - many of them students from lecturer Lee Brown’s Introduction to Environmental Fieldwork class, a course in the Environmental Studies program at Tufts. We also received lots of extra support from our Tufts “maple intern,” Lou Devlin, Growing Center volunteer Travis McGrath, and many community members, culminating in a Volunteer Meet-Up on Friday evening, as the boiling was winding down - a social event to draw in and engage new volunteers. (Keep your eyes peeled for more of these as the season progresses!)

The students also spent many weeks collecting data regarding sugar content and sap volume. Professor Brown will present some of their findings in a virtual program, Our Maple Boil Project: What, Why, How and Who later in the month.

Like many Growing Center enterprises, the Maple Syrup Project has always been a community collaboration. Early organizers Frank Carey, a vocational teacher at SHS, farmer Mark Waltermire from Gaining Ground and our own Lisa Brukilacchio brought in partners from the start like Tufts University, Somerville Public Schools (SPS), the School Food Service, and even the Department of Public Works, as well as organizations like Groundwork Somerville, which eventually took the project over and expanded it for about a decade around 2009.

In its earlier days, the educational portion of the Maple Project ran for weeks in advance, incorporating lessons for second- and third-graders from area Somerville Public Schools on the history and science behind maple syrup - all taught by Tufts undergrads and volunteers from the community trained by Groundwork staff. This year, it was area 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds who benefited from hearing about the process of boiling maple sap to get that final sweet sticky product we all love.

“I love everything about being a part of the Maple Boil,” says Paula Jordan, Site Coordinator for the Growing Center. “It’s the chance to be part of a long community tradition in an urban environment with deep roots in ecology with an appreciation of nature, a focus on place-based education, seeing the connections between nature, plants and people, acknowledging the original stewards of the land.”

Even though all the trees tapped this year were on the Tufts campus, in the early years the Growing Center enlisted the help of community members for sap collection and boiling. Residents were encouraged to “volunteer” their trees for tapping, which in turn increased awareness of the importance of trees among Somerville youth and adults alike. Indeed, the sap buckets on trees near the Tufts campus are a testimony to the project’s cooperative spirit and success.

There’s a careful science to tapping trees responsibly to avoid injuring the tree and to allow for the best yield. Trees are not usually tapped when they are less than 12” in diameter, giving them time to grow. A large, healthy tree can support 2-4 taps. Taps are moved from year to year (several inches from the last tapping hole).

Maple tapping and syrup production making did not start with colonists. There is a long history of tribes in the U.S. and Canada tapping and boiling maple sap for medicine/food, syrup having nutritional benefits - and using it as currency and for trade. There are many stories in Indigenous Traditions regarding the discovery and boiling of sap. There is also a gratitude to the trees (seen as ancestors, or kin) and actions of reciprocity for what the trees have given people/animals and all living things.

Special thanks to all the volunteers without whom we could not have collected dozens of gallons of sap, boiled it down and finished it off over a weekend - firstly, Lou Devlin and Travis McGrath for all their time and energy in coordinating tapping, collection, storing and delivering the sap to the center very early the morning of the boil. Thanks to the folks at Tufts University and Tufts Environmental Studies for their continued collaboration for the tapping process, and to Aeronaut Brewery for storing the sap until boil down (check in a bit to see what kind of maple brew they will produce from the 30-40 gallons we gave them!). Thanks to Bob Shane of Shane Designs who generously donated labels for the syrup jars. Thanks to Himalayan Kitchen for the incredibly generous use of their kitchen on Saturday morning, where we were able to finish the boiling process in a space where it can be more closely controlled. (They were also really patient and kind when a couple of volunteers barged in on their dinner service on Friday night desperate for an enormous pot to pour the sap into during the cool-down process.) Also a big thanks to the Growing Center “Snow Team” who made sure to shovel so we had access to the Center itself for the boil down.

And a shout-out to other folks in the community who through their past experience have guided us in the boil these past few years: Jen Lawrence, Claire Kozower, and Lisa Brukilacchio.

The Maple Syrup Project has always challenged and informed our perspectives about the roles and functions of urban trees, in a way that engages Somerville residents both young and old. And it is an exciting outdoor activity that adds a bit of community warmth during the winter months, a time when many residents do not ordinarily consider using Somerville’s open spaces. It has always been a true community experience; some student attendees and community members even returned to the Growing Center as volunteers.

“As someone who grew up in the city, it’s special that the Growing Center can provide a space where folks of all ages in Somerville can connect with this amazing process,” says Jordan. “It’s also the chance to share the magic of it.”

Lastly, we want to give thanks to the maple trees themselves, who each year give us such a sweet treat. May we learn to live in gratitude and in the spirit of reciprocity with the natural world for the many gifts she gives us. And in an acknowledgment of the land, Tufts University recognizes that it is located on colonized Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) and Massachusett Tribe traditional territory. The Somerville Community Growing center sits on Massachusett Tribe Traditional territory.

Read a more thorough history of the Maple Syrup Project on the project's main page.


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