After learning how to properly jam the plastic spigot into the maple tree to start the flow of sap in Wheeler Nature Park, Saturday, Lan Luo lifted up her son, Andrew Jiang, to let him try.
All the while, University of Vermont sophomore Louisa Damico offered advice and guided their technique, explaining how tapping begins a process that creates the maple syrup Jiang and his brother Richard love to pour over their morning waffles.
Damico was part of a group of UVM sophomores who, as required by the sustainability-themed dorm in which they live, take a variety of classes that teach skills enhancing their ability to lead environmentally conscious lives. They gathered in the sodden clearing in Wheeler Nature Park to learn about maple sugaring, and to spread their knowledge to anyone who happened to wonder through.
“We’ve done this for about six years just as a fun way of getting the students to learn about the sugaring process, and then engage with the community,” said Walter Poleman, the Director of UVM’s Ecological Planning Program, who teaches the course.
The class first visited Wheeler Nature Park three weeks prior, at which time they learned how to identify and tap maple trees. The class returned the week after to check in on the buckets and make syrup to bring back to campus, and returned on March 30 to provide demonstrations of their knowledge to the public.
Besides the tree-tapping demonstration, visitors to the sugarbush were treated to samples of fresh maple sap, which tastes like water tinted with maple flavoring, as well as a smorgasbord of maple candies and other food products, the whole time learning from the students about this quintessentially Vermont tradition.
Luo learned about this event from an email from the South Burlington Parks and Recreation Department and thought it would be an interesting opportunity for her two sons, who are both breakfast fanatics, she said. So she took her sons and some friends and family members on a walk through the woods to see first-hand how syrup is made.
The class is unique in that the hands-on manner in which the students taught Luo and Jiang about sugaring is similar to how they learned in the first place.
“They’ve learned about it, and when they teach about it it gives them a chance to really solidify in their brains how it works,” Poleman said.
Though the students did some reading to prepare for their projects, much of their research came from learning how to identify maple trees, locating where and how deep one should drill into the tree, and the like, Damico said.
Desmond Keger, who worked with Damico on the tapping demonstration, was surprised to learn how easy it is to sap trees with commonplace materials, and is inspired to conduct more personal tapping projects in the future, he said.
“I have a couple of maple trees in my backyard,” said Desmond, who had tapped those trees years ago. “This kind of sparked my interest again,” he said.
Jasper Barnes and Rachel Goldmann devoted their project to studying how harvesting maple sap is possible thanks to physiological quirks unique to maple trees. Using a hand-drawn diagram, they presented their research to interested visitors, who sipped fresh sap while listening.
Poleman chose this South Burlington location because he wanted to teach the class in an area that had never before been tapped, and because this particular sugarbush is so characteristic of the ones dotted across the state, he said.
Residents living near Wheeler Nature Park as well as city officials were supportive of Poleman hosting the class in park’s sugarbush, he said.
“They were only too happy to go for it,” he said.