A Merry goodbye: Residents pay final respects to iconic Amherst tree

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 11-19-2022 7:04 AM

AMHERST — Looking up in awe at the large maple, touching the bark on its trunk and remarking on how sturdy the tree seems, 7-year-old Xavi Veatch was among those saddened to be saying good-bye to the original Merry Maple.

“I just have a lot of memories,” Xavi said.

Accompanied by mother Katie Veatch to the Celebration of Life for the Merry Maple on the North Common Wednesday evening, the family understood that their visit would be the last time they would see the historic tree standing.

“Both of us are feeling more emotional than we expected,” Veatch said.

“It holds a lot of memories for our family,” Veatch added. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what it will be like without the Merry Maple, and it’s hard to imagine.”

Put on by the Amherst Public Shade Tree Committee, the farewell event brought a number of families to pay their final respects to the tree, which is believed to be around 80 years old, but which according to some authorities could be closer to 150, and is best known for lending its name to the annual event that begins the holiday season in Amherst.

The Merry Maple celebration began in 1966, was paused during the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the large tree remained lit until 1995, when a smaller tree took its place through 2014. That was when the Amherst Business Improvement District restrung the original to return it to its previous place of prominence.

Over the summer, though, Tree Warden Alan Snow and the Shade Tree Committee determined the tree should be cut down to make way for a $1.8 million overhaul of the greenspace. The improvement plan, which includes the planting of a number of new trees, will address frequent washouts and exposed roots, remove some pavement and create other enhancements, such as providing new seating that will replace the tree boxes made from railroad ties.

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The Merry Maple was removed throughout the day on Thursday by Lyndon Tree Care, with the Spring Street parking lot closed from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. to accommodate a crane.

Before the farewell ceremony began, Shade Tree Committee member Britt Crow-Miller placed candles around the tree’s perimeter. “The idea is to have a chance to celebrate the tree and what it’s meant to the community,” Crow-Miller said.

Crow-Miller explained that she and her family came to Amherst in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. They appreciate and honor the work the tree has done to keep the air clean, sequester carbon and oversee peace vigils and community events.

“This was one of the trees we connected with,” Crow-Miller said. “This is the tree that made us feel at home. Their loss impacts all of us.”

As both children and adults went up to the tree, some to hug it, some to get their pictures taken with it and others to do bark rubbings, letters offering their reflections could be written and dropped into a “letters to the Merry Maple” mailbox station.

Using crayons to draw the tree, Ariela Cannon Collins, 8, also wrote a short message on the paper: “I wish you could stay forever. I will miss you.”

“Our family absolutely cherishes and loves this tree,” said Jennifer Cannon, Ariela’s mother, who said that in addition to coming to the annual event, she recalls participating in dozens of social justice rallies at the site, seeing friends and loved ones arrested in support of various causes, all under the tree’s watchful eye.

“This tree has held so many memories for thousands of people,” Cannon said.

Greyson Westort, 9, also illustrated the tree and offered thoughts in a letter.

“We love the Merry Maple,” said Natasha Widener, Greyson’s mother, observing that the family has been coming to the Merry Maple event for several years. “We’re so sad they’re taking it down.”

Meg Kroeplin placed a loop of white lights on the Merry Maple’s trunk, beginning as a circle, though a child later fashioned the string into a heart.

“The first time I saw the Merry Maple was 35 years ago, and I’ve been coming on and off every since,” Kroeplin said. “Every phase of my life, from being a student to being a parent to being a parent of a kid in college, it punctuates making the winter bearable.”

As Crow-Miller read a Henry David Thoreau writing about the felling of a tree, and bells rang from Grace Episcopal Church, and mournful music was performed by musician James Bird.

Bird expressed admiration for those who attended. “Thank you for advocating for more than the human kin,” Bird said.

Merry Maple event on tap

The Merry Maple event will go on as usual on Dec. 2, with the smaller Norway maple tree to be lit up that afternoon. All the usual aspects of the event, including the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band escorting Santa Claus, and ciders and doughnuts, will be part of it.

Chamber Executive Director Claudia Pazmany purchased the “letters to the Merry Maple” mailbox, noting that the public will have another opportunity to offer their written comments at the final Amherst Farmers Market on Saturday. Pazmany said the hope is that the reflections will be displayed publicly and then become part of an archive, perhaps at special collections at Jones Library.

For 35 of his 39 years teaching at the junior high and middle school, David Ranen led the Amherst Regional Middle School Chorus, which continues to perform annually at the Merry Maple from the steps of Town Hall.

Attending the farewell celebration, Ranen said it was appropriate for the community to come together to honor the tree’s life. “I’m very happy they’re doing this,” Ranen said.

Some of the wood from the Merry Maple is supposed to be left behind so ideas such as creating a bench might happen. After one of the beloved twin trees at the top of Mount Pollux was removed, a piece of wood from that was fashioned into the gavel that is used by the Town Council president.

Among the mourners on hand was Adrian Stair, who said she was resigned to the Merry Maple’s fate after attending the tree hearing over the summer. Stair gave the tree a final hug.

“I’m here more from the Earth’s point of view,” said Suzanne Delaney of Hatfield, recalling participating in drumming and dance circles as she went up to the tree to give it affection. “I know that this tree has supported organisms above and below, and I think we have to pay homage to the fact that she’s a sacred being.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>