February 22, 2014

Sugaring Off at Gaining Ground



In the teasing warmth of this afternoon, we visit the Gaining Ground sugar house for one of their first boils this season.  Like a bit of Vermont in our own neighborhood, the perfumed steam breathes out the door and roof vent, while visitors gather around the boiler to share stories of their sugaring memories and make acquaintances.  Gaining Ground currently taps 175 sugar maples on both public and private land in Concord and Carlisle. The finished syrup is distributed to local food pantries in the greater Boston area.  For more about Gaining Ground's farming mission and who they serve, see http://gainingground.org/our-mission.

With daughter Rosie and friend Sean Morris in the foreground


Farm coordinator, Kayleigh Boyle, stokes the fire and introduces us to the workings of their modern boiler.  Sugar boils are scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons until mid-March, weather permitting, and are open to visitors.  The sugar house is located on the driveway into Gaining Ground and Thoreau Farm, at 341 Virginia Road.

Enjoying the steamy warmth while farmer Kayleigh Boyle gives us the story
Thoreau Farm in the background
Shafts of light, curls of smoke

Discussing maple syrup grades
Fetching wood
Stoking the fire
Completing the story...  The sap for the Gaining Ground sugaring operation is collected largely by community volunteers.  The trees that are tapped are mature individual, town-planted setback or park trees and small groupings of sugar maples on private property that were likely planted and nourished over the past century.  There is only one known location for a wild stand of sugar maples in Concord (see below).  The success of Gaining Ground's program should encourage the town to increase the inclusion of sugar maples in its municipal tree planting program to sustain Concord's maple sugar production long into the future.

Volunteers collect sap at our tree on March 9th this year
Stalking Concord's Rare, Wild Sugar Maples
Natural stands of sugar maples are a rare feature on the Concord landscape.  In 1851, Thoreau was alerted to the only natural stand that was known at that time, or since, behind Darius Miles' property near the "Corner" (Nine Acre Corner).  "Found a grove of young sugar maples (Acer saccharinum) behind what was Mile's.  How silently and yet startlingly the existence of these sugar maples was revealed to me... (Journal, Sept 24, 1851).  On November 8, 1860 he added, "The sugar maples occupy, together with oaks of the same size, about thirty rods, or say ten rods by three.  The largest about five inches diameter, but generally quite small.  They have sprung from quite small stumps, commonly not bigger than themselves at most."  Thoreau's description suggests that this copse of sugar maples, covering about .2 acres of woodland, had likely once been used as a woodlot.

These wild sugar maples predominately grow down the steep sides of a south facing ravine, and "silently and startlingly make themselves known" to the seeker, as Thoreau describes, especially prior to peak foliage time.
The colorful canopies of sugar maples rising out of the ravine
According to botanist Ray Angelo, an authority on Concord's historic flora, Thoreau's contemporary Minot Pratt also knew of this site and identifyed the distinctive Orange-fruited Horse-gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum) nearby.  Richard Eaton (Flora of Concord, 1974) never found the stand, nor the Triosteum.  In the 1970's, Angelo was able to relocate both the sugar maple grove and the Triosteum, confirming Thoreau and Pratt's original records. In 2013, directed by Ray Angelo, I relocated, photographed, and marked coordinates for this obscured and relatively inaccessible sugar maple stand.  Fortunately, it now falls almost completely within Concord Land Conservation Trust's Anderson Woods property where it can be permanently protected.

Fall color reveals the sugar maples' location, but many trees do not turn due to the dense shading in this forested area.
Thoreau, undeterred by the shortage of sugar maples, tapped various other trees - including black and yellow birch and red maple.  On March 21, 1856 (10 am) he wrote, "To my red maple sugar camp.  Found that after a pint and a half had run from a single tube [tap] after 3 p.m. yesterday, it had frozen about half an inch thick, and this morning a quarter of a pint more had run.  It is worth the while to know that there is all this sugar in our woods, much of which might be obtained by using the refuse wood lying about, without damage to the proprietor, who use neither the sugar nor the wood."

2 comments: