A chain of three ducks waddles across the pen as a boy reaches out his hands to touch one and narrowly dodges a group of chickens frantically fleeing a camera-wielding first grader. Neither a child nor a parent, I feel out of place in the middle of this hectic petting zoo — one of the top attractions at Common Ground, a high school, urban farm, and environmental education center located just three miles northwest of Yale’s campus.
At first glance, Common Ground’s forested trails, cabin-like buildings, and welcoming atmosphere remind me of my childhood’s endless summer days, long hikes, and midnight s’mores-making around an open campfire. Founded by a group of parents, teachers, and environmentalists looking to educate the New Haven community, Common Ground welcomes visitors to the farm for various seasonal festivals, hiking trips, and Open Farm Days every year. This season’s biggest event is Winterfest, a celebration of winter’s long-overdue end through learning about maple sugaring, the process of making maple syrup. Winterfest’s modest $8 entrance fee goes to support Common Ground’s other community programs.
Today, I follow a group of families around to each of the festival’s stations, where different steps in the sugaring process are explained. I head over to a clump of bare maple trees with spigots nailed into the trunks and tin buckets hanging to catch the flowing sap. There, Jill Keating, a Common Ground staff member, explains that cold winter nights and warm days are needed for the sap to run. She invites us to come closer and look. Peering into the buckets, I’m astonished that the sap looks hardly any different from water and certainly nothing like the sticky, viscous liquid I’ve been imagining.
“It’s very similar to coconut water,” Jill explains. “It’s even got similar nutritional value. Do you want to try some?” She fills a small Dixie cup with filtered sap, assuring us that it is perfectly potable, and I take a sip. It tastes almost like water, with a refreshing hint of some indescribably subtle flavor. The next fad beverage? There’s definitely potential.
After tasting the sap, we wonder where the syrup comes from. I know that money doesn’t grow on trees, but I’m startled to discover that raw, sticky syrup doesn’t flow from them either. The watery sap I’ve just tried is diligently boiled and evaporated until it finally becomes the golden, delicious syrup with which I often drown my pancakes. The collected sap is carefully filtered and reduced until it becomes sufficiently dense, an indication that the desired sugar content has been achieved. Depending on the amount of sap boiled at once, the process can take many hours — even days.
“It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,” says Rebecca Holcombe, Director of Community Programs at Common Ground. “It’s all done with wood fires, even for big syrup manufacturers.” We walk behind the school building to take a look at the wood fire evaporator, a large box-like oven overflowing with sweet steam evaporating from the surface of the bubbling sap.
Gathered around the woodfired evaporator, we are rewarded with a special treat: a blind taste test to see if we can tell the difference between artificial and real syrup, the latter produced right at Common Ground. I pick up the two samples and tip my head back, waiting for the syrup to trickle down the side of the cup. One of the syrups is much thicker and sweeter than the other. I correctly identify this one as the real syrup, and as possibly one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Caught up in lessons about maple sugaring, it’s easy to forget that Common Ground is also a high school — though it hardly resembles any high school I’ve seen before. After tasting my fill of maple syrup, I return to the petting zoo, where students Alicea Vazquez and Starr Colbert are volunteering, keeping a watchful eye on the pecking chickens and bouncing toddlers.
“It’s just like a normal school,” says Starr of Common Ground, “with normal classes and everything.” What began in 1997 as a charter school with only 20 students has quickly evolved into a thriving school where 155 students grades 9 through 12 learn to care for their environment: in addition to the typical high school curriculum and extracurriculars, students also study environmental science and U.S. environmental history, and they brainstorm solutions to contemporary challenges.
“I love being here more than any other school,” says Alicea. “I’ve never been to a school with animals before!” She laughs as Starr bends down to introduce some kids to Einstein, a grey chicken with an unruly puff of white feathers on the crown of its head. “And the small class size makes it easier to learn. You really get to know each other better.” Starr wholeheartedly agrees.
But all New Haven nature-lovers, students or not, can enjoy a beautiful Saturday morning at Common Ground’s Winterfest. It is, in Starr’s words, “a totally different experience.”