Glistening fresh snow. Tall trees, with tin buckets hung to collect maple sap. Camera angle is looking up towards the sky.

Pennsylvania: Healthy Roots and Sweet Maple Sap

During Black History Month, we want to share the inspiration and strength of regional, place-based initiatives that address Black history in nature and relate to this year’s theme, The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.

Healthy Roots in Pittsburgh

“Root shock.” An environmental educator reading this term will likely think of the avoidable occurrence when transplanting seedlings or saplings. Healthy root systems, mild weather, and a sprinkle of fertilizer are good ways to avoid root shock.

“Root shock” is also the term that social psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Fullilove uses to express the traumatic stress that urban renewal wreaked on communities of color. Fullilove cites Pittsburgh as a key example, addressing how thousands of Black residents and hundreds of Black businesses were forced out of the vibrant Hill District to make space for a hockey stadium in the 1950s. Cut off from downtown and cut off from prior community relations, Black communities in Pittsburgh were dealt a racist disadvantage and have yet to receive adequate reparations.

Through urban agriculture, Pittsburgh’s Black residents are tackling food deserts, land inequity, and other environmental repercussions of racist policy. Their work is remarkable, important, and inspiring:

  • In Larimer, a community-built African Healing Garden inspires sensory awareness to promote wellness, respect for nature, and healthy dialogue.
  • Over on Perry Hilltop, Abdulkadir Chirambo directs Mwanakuche Farm to support Somali-Bantu food sovereignty. 
  • Multiple efforts are ongoing in Homewood. Twice a month, Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh runs a no-cost farmers market. Operation Better Block leads community planning efforts that include stormwater gardens and public green spaces. Through summer programming, Sankofa Village Community Garden and Farm (SVCGF) inspires Black youth to be proud of African agrarian knowledge, and is currently fundraising to create a bicycle rental program, a garden designed for children with autism, and a food canning workspace.
  • A collaboration between the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the Heinz History Center, the From Slavery to Freedom Garden in Frick Park celebrates the botanical knowledge of enslaved African Americans and highlights African-American connection to the natural world.

Sweet Maple Sap in Susquehanna County

Winter is not the easiest season for environmental education, but those living in colder climates know of a phrase that is guaranteed to bring on the piling on of hats, gloves, and puffy coats: “sugar bush,” a sweet term distinguishing the trees that have been set apart for maple tapping. Students can pick their own maple trees, drill holes, insert spiles, and hang buckets with little to no help. While tasting fresh sap is a watery disappointment, joining for the final stirs of a bubbling maple sap is an experience and smell not easily forgotten. 

The earliest written record of maple syrup in North America is from 1557; a Frenchman declared it to be as delicious as wine. In addition to the relatively simple and sustainable production process, key to its historic popularity was its nonassociation with slavery. Pennsylvanian Quaker Benjamin Rush believed it possible to end slavery simply by promoting maple syrup, and while he was overly idealistic, his efforts supported a maple boom with 1860 at the peak of maple sugar production in US history.

Records analyzed by Dr. John R. Roby in “Persistent Practice and Racial Politics” reveal that the Perkins and Dennis family* in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania produced disproportionately large amounts of maple sugar throughout the nineteenth century—thus, before and after the maple boom. Their motivations are unknown, but what is important and certain is this: The Perkins and Dennis family were free, land-owning Black farmers who maintained fiscal independence while making ethical agrarian decisions. Amidst a pervasive textbook narrative that frames slavery as an economic decision, amplifying the stories of the Perkins and Dennis family is critical.

The sugar bush of the Perkins and Dennis family lives on; the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust protects the 153 acres that have been passed down and stewarded from generation to generation for over 200 years. The trust is engaged in efforts to become a destination for educational field trips so that young students can engage in maple tapping and other nature-immersed activities in this historical site of Black independence. Future plans include a garden that will showcase the crops grown in the 19th century and an Interpretative Center.

*This has been corrected from a previous statement assuming the Perkins and Dennis to be two separate families. Thank you to the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust for the correction. 

Want to learn more? Carry on to the next post in this series, Making Florida Home.

Are you a part of environmental education efforts in Pennsylvania?

Connect with our affiliate, the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators (