My essay “Dis-ease,” published in Earth Island Journal, is the recipient of the 2021 John Burroughs Nature Essay Award. Read more about the award here, and read the essay here.
Clams and Crabs
Since 2012, clam landings in Freeport, Maine have declined 70%. One of the reasons for this is the growing invasive green crab population. Although green crabs have been in Maine since at least the 1950s, they are thriving in the warmer waters resulting from global climate change. In addition to decimating the clam population, green crabs are killing shore grasses, leading to coastal erosion. In this video, I follow Freeport clam harvester Chad Coffin for a day. See green crabs up close, and the eroding shoreline. #LivingChange
To boil maple tree sap until it thickens into maple syrup
The steam billowing out of the sugar house confirms that I’ve come at the right time to Goranson Farm. I’m led into the side door by canine residents Kennebec and Lila. I open the door and am immediately wrapped in warm, sweet smelling steam. Having just come from my chilly office, the feeling is like walking into a maple flavored steam bath. I am immediately revived. I find Rob Johanson, co-owner of Goranson Farm in Dresden, standing before a roughly 12 foot x 12 foot stainless steel evaporator. A timer goes off and Goran, Rob’s younger son, gets up from his stool and walks over to the opposite end of the evaporator to fill it with wood.
One end of the evaporator is connected to the wall and the sap tank outside. Goranson Farm collects sap from 1600 tap lines and 400 buckets. The other end of the evaporator has a powerful wood stove on the bottom attached to an open basin. This basin is separated into four vertical and one horizontal sections of boiling, steaming maple sap. As Goran finishes throwing logs into the woodstove, Rob walks over to the open basin where the sap is boiling, takes a glass of butter, dips a wooden stick into it, and slips it into each of the five sections of sap. He explains that boiling sap tends to foam, and the butter keeps the foam down.
Rob has been making maple syrup here for nearly 40 years. From the outside, it looks like an enviable task. Drop everything you are doing, hang out in a warm steamy room in March, and watch sap boil. Yet I’m surprised by how busy the sap house is. The timer for filling up the woodstove goes off every seven minutes, and in between Rob and Goran are filling bottles, organizing filters, and checking temperatures. Rob’s eldest son, Carl, pops in and out to coordinate workers who are pulling sap buckets from around the farm. There is a low-level hum of quiet activity. The timer goes off again and Rob says, “it’s a quick seven minutes.”
On the front of the evaporator, two pipes with levers reach out to buckets waiting for syrup. Above these is a temperature gauge. Rob explains that the ideal temperature for reaching the desired thickness and color of syrup depends on the day, but that yesterday it was about 222 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the sap has boiled sufficiently, Rob fills the buckets, tests the temperature and density, and figures whether he needs to raise or lower the temperature to achieve the correct consistency. Once he is happy, he sends the buckets over to Goran, where they are warmed up again, put through a filter, and bottled.
Earlier that week, as we sat around their kitchen table, Rob’s wife Jan, co-owner of Goranson Farm, mentioned that her birthday is February 21st. When they first met, she says, all she wanted for her birthday was to begin tapping, but the trees were never ready. Maybe they’d tap one just to make her happy, but the real sugaring didn’t take place until mid-March. Mike Lynch, who also sugars on the farm, says he used to take a winter vacation down South before sugaring season. He’d usually come back by March 1st, just in case, but sugaring never started that early. Then they began to notice that they were tapping earlier in March. Soon they began to expect to be ready the third week in February, and now they’re pushing it up to the first week in February. Though there have been many changes on the farm over the years this, they say, is the most recognizable shift.
There are a handful of trees that produce sweet sap: birch, walnut, and maple, but maple is the sweetest. The processes within the tree that lead to the sap running are influenced by weather patterns outside the tree. Sugar is critical for the growth of trees. Most of the tree’s sugar is produced by leaves in the summer, then stored as starch mostly in the trunk and the roots. In the winter, the tree goes dormant and the sap freezes. As snow piles up outside the tree, it wraps itself around the trunk and roots, helping the tree rest. It is the freeze-thaw cycle of early spring that wakes the giant trees, the abrupt back and forth between warm days, in the 40s and 50s, and cool nights, in the 20s. When the temperature drops at night and warms during the day it stimulates the tree to wake up. Sap begins moving throughout the tree preparing to produce buds. The sap flow also happens in the fall, in reverse, as the tree prepares to go into dormancy. But most producers don’t bother tapping then, as the amount of sap is much lower.
In 2001, the earliest sap flow recorded in New England was in Vermont, on February 22nd. In Maine, the earliest sap flow was on March 19th. Records from the USDA indicate that in the last 17 years initial sap flow dates have changed throughout New England. By 2017, the earliest sap flow recorded was January 1st. These shifts in the timing of the freeze-thaw cycle could impact the tree’s ability to produce sap in a number of ways. Kathryn Hopkins, of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, says that “in general the weather conditions to create sap flow have been beginning earlier and earlier; some climate folks think that fall period of going into dormancy and spring coming out of dormancy, those two phenomena are going to get closer and closer together in time, the trees are going to go dormant later in the year, come out of it earlier. And what that means, nobody really knows. The observation is that these time frames are getting closer together. Will there be one heavy sap flow that starts soon after they go dormant?” Another way the shifting freeze-thaw cycle could influence sap production is through warmer, less predictable spring temperatures. Hopkins notes that “as the weather becomes more chaotic, if spring comes ‘early’ and the warm period sustains long enough that the trees leaf out, you [could] get a cold snap, kill the leaves and force the tree to expend its energy to put out a whole new flush of growth.”
Warming temperatures are shaping maple production at the forest level as well. A new article in the Journal of Applied Ecology by University of Maine and Purdue scientists notes that due to warmer temperatures and precipitation changes, beech trees are taking over the Northeastern forest. Because beech trees tend to shade out other competitors, maple trees are not regenerating as readily. So maple trees will eventually migrate north, and beech, oak, and other warmer weather species will proliferate. This has implications not only for maple syrup and the forest ecosystem, but also for the timber industry. Hopkins says that “Potentially, with a long- lived species like maple, the current trees of tappable size will continue to exist and have sap flow, so the industry will continue. But as those trees age and die, if they are not capable of competing in the forest, then eventually in 100 years, you could have very limited resource.” She also notes that the rise in the number of extreme weather events and their intensity is impacting maple syrup production. Big storm events characterized by higher winds, sharper warm spikes, and more intense precipitation used to be unusual here. But as these kinds of weather events become more common because of the warming climate, the risk of damage in the sugar bush also goes up. Just the other day, she says, she was talking to a producer who lost 160 trees in a major storm in October. “If you’re in an area that’s prone to tornadoes—Maine never has been, but there have been micro-bursts in the last few years—those kinds of events that seem to be connected with a warming climate can cause a lot of damage.”
Back at the sugar house, Goran is holding a small maple leaf filled with the latest batch up to the window, considering its color. Rob gives me a sample of the syrup, still hot from the bucket. It tastes brighter than what I’m used to, perhaps because it is so fresh. The hot syrup burns my throat slightly as I swallow it, but I immediately take another gulp because it is so delicious. Rob says his favorite way to have it is dipped with pickles. I take another sip, slower this time, enjoying the sweetness, at least for now.
The Search Image
Searching for clams and green crabs in Maine
Stuck in the mud
I recently spent a day harvesting clams with Chad Coffin on Maquoit Bay in Freeport. It was hard work and good fun. I’ve walked the muddy shores opposite my house often since moving here last year. It can be a challenging place to lead my son, who is 2, because parts of the shoreline between the upper rocks and the water look stable and almost rocky, but are actually slick and muddy. I finally learned why when Chad showed me that these areas of concentrated mud are actually marsh where green crabs have built nests and killed the native grasses, leaving only the slick surface in its place. Here are a few images, with more to come.
Through the Living Change project, we are exploring the diverse ways people working the land and the sea in Maine understand their places, their work, and environmental changes.
Diverse ways of knowing climate change and place might include personal and family histories of changing weather and shifting ecology in the sea and on land, such as the decline of species like mussels, and the increase of other species, such as green grabs and invasive insects. Other ways of knowing place and climate change include rapid landscape change associated with suburbanization and gentrification, which limits land and water access, and subsequent shifts in culturally valued practices.
Living Change is documenting the lived experiences and local ecological knowledge associated with environmental changes in Maine through interviews, participatory photography, and more.
Living Through Climate Change in Maine
This project seeks to learn about how climate change is impacting people whose lives and work depend on the land and the sea. By spending time with fishers, farmers, and foresters, we hope to better understand how individuals are experiencing climate change in the context of their local landscapes and communities. How are their environments changing? How is their work changing? How are they making sense of these changes in relation to their places?
By talking with fishers, farmers, and foresters, following them as they work, and viewing their photographs of places, the project seeks to situate and emplace global climate change in the everyday experiences of people who work in the three dominant natural-resource groups in Maine: fishing, farming, and forestry.
Like the dead alder tree above, on Dave Asmussen’s Bluebell Farm, and the eroding shoreline in Freeport, shown in Sara Randall’s photo below, signs of change are all around us. By delving into the local knowledge and expertise of Maine’s farmers, fishers, and foresters, we hope to expand our understanding of the profound ecological, social, and cultural climate-related changes that are afoot.
Photo by Sara Randall
Ultimately, we agree with other scholars and activists who have called for more work on “the local roots of climate meanings,” (Hulme, 2008:8) including the ecological, economic, and cultural, in order to humanize and more deeply engage with the unfolding of climate change in places over time, and ultimately contribute to better understanding of how people and places might most equitably and sustainably co-adapt.
Stay tuned as we take notes on climate change through the eyes of farmers, fishers, and foresters in Maine.
Hulme, Mike. 2008. “Geographical Work at the Boundaries of Climate Change.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33(1):5–11.