Brian Donahue

Sugar maples, and a bit of needed rain

By Brian Donahue
June 21, 2010

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CALL US nuts, but we are planting maples. This has been the hottest spring in memory — a month ahead of the norm when we began farming, back in the 1970s. Are sugar maples in New England doomed to also become a memory — part of a better world we have lost?

Not if we can help it. My wife Faith and I have been growing fruits and vegetables, raising lambs, and making syrup in the Boston suburbs since we were teenagers. But we have long been plotting our escape. A few years ago, with friends, we bought a farm in western Massachusetts. Among the attractions are the large maples at the edge of the pasture, along the river that borders the farm. Some are enormous — four feet in diameter, gnarly and knobbed, as venerable as maples can be. Given their situation, I do not think they are altogether “natural’’ — it is likely they were planted (or carefully retained) when the farm was established, late in the colonial era.

Sugar maple is emblematic of New England both for its syrup, and for its brilliant fall colors. But the region’s maple-dominated forest probably owes as much to culture as to nature. Research by Charles Cogbill on “witness trees’’ in early town surveys indicates that before Europeans arrived, the region’s forest had far more beech than maple. That is reversed in the forest that has returned after centuries of agricultural clearing and abandonment. Among the reasons is our love of maple sugar: even as our ancestors cut the forest they saved the maples, and then added them to their farmyards, fencerows, and roadsides. These trees became the parents of the forest that grew back.

The maples on our farm fit that mold. Along one stretch the little river has moved a few hundred feet farther west, making a few acres of floodplain forest. This woodlot, seeded by the mother trees on the old bank, has now grown up into a perfect sugar bush. We can hang between 200 and 300 buckets — just right for a family-sized operation.

Naturally, we would like to continue the tradition, and leave something in turn for those who follow us. And we can — in other places our pasture runs right to the river bank. In cooperation with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, we are pulling our fence back and creating a riparian buffer to shade the river and protect it from farm runoff. There we planted trees to anchor the strip of forest that will grow back.

Our first idea was to alternate sugar maple with white oak. Diversity is a good thing, and this would spread our bets as the climate changes. Just as sugar maple is emblematic of the northern forest, white oak stands for the great central hardwoods forest of oak, hickory, and (once) chestnut that stretches from Pennsylvania into southern New England. If we do nothing and the climate warms as predicted, maple and hemlock will be driven north, and oak and pine may come to dominate all of New England. Planting white oak, then, would be a sensible way to adapt to rising temperatures. Planting maple is a pledge to mitigate the effects of warming. We need both.

But when it came down to it, we planted maples. Faith dug holes and brought water from the river. I scouted around to dig seedlings. Our son Liam helped plant the trees. Our daughter Maggie stuffed bars of deodorant soap into old socks to repel deer, we hope.

We planted the trees on May 1 — a little late, but who expected it to be 90 degrees and the poor saplings already leafed out? We gave them plenty of water, and prayed for rain. What were we doing, setting out maples while the door swings open to centuries of tropical heat? The last tree we planted was a shagbark hickory — a nod to adaptation, I suppose — or maybe I just happened to bump into a nice-looking young specimen.

In his new book “Eaarth,’’ Bill McKibben tells us we already inhabit a transformed planet, and better get used to it. That is true, but McKibben is not suggesting we resign ourselves to adaptation alone. We have to fight for mitigation, for a hefty price on carbon, to keep the world safe for this forest we helped make. Sure, be realistic: plant hickories and oaks. But also do something for hope: plant maples!

It did rain. So far, the little trees are doing fine.

Brian Donahue is associate professor of American environmental studies at Brandeis University and co-author of “Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for the New England Landscape,’’ a report from Harvard Forest.

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