Any mention of The Boston Tea Party today is likely to evoke thoughts of the current political movement, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin. That might soon change with the urban agriculture and participatory art project The Boston Tree Party, which aims to put a fresh and positive spin on this important moment in United States history. The goal is to plant 100 pairs of heirloom apple trees across Greater Boston, in effect creating a “decentralized public urban orchard.” On April 10, founder and artist Lisa Gross and her team of collaborators will officially launch The Boston Tree Party campaign with a rally, parade, and planting; the events are collectively dubbed “The Inauguration.” In the following interview, Gross shares her motivation for the project, strategies for strengthening community through apple trees, and enlightens me on the Roxbury Russet variety.
Nicole J. Caruth: Who or what inspired The Boston Tree Party?
Lisa Gross: The idea was a result of a number of different interests, experiences, and circumstances.
I’ve had a long-time interest in particular aspects of urban agriculture—the ways it can bring diverse groups of people together while simultaneously improving the health of a community. I’ve also had a long-time obsession with fruit trees. Ever since I was a child, picking apples every fall has symbolized for me a deep experience of abundance and pleasure; there is something so visceral and enjoyable about picking an apple directly from a tree and eating it. And lastly, living in Boston, you are always surrounded by Colonial era history and kitsch. That history has become newly relevant with the rise of the contemporary Tea Party. It’s been interesting to watch the recontextualization of that history from the vantage point of the place where the historical Tea Party actually happened. I started to read a lot about the original Tea Party, and I became fascinated with how it was really a performance… In a way, it was a public performance that helped launched the movement for American Independence. I then discovered in my reading that the first apple orchard in the American Colonies was planted on Beacon Hill—the symbol of Boston power and history—and all the ideas of the project started to coalesce. I realized that planting pairs of apple trees in civic space could be a potent symbolic and political act, one that could help further a post-partisan movement in support of community and environmental health.
NJC: Tell me more about the “conceptual art” aspect of this project. How does The Boston Tree Party fit into your larger practice as an artist?
LG: I’m interested in how artists can be social innovators and catalysts for social change. In my practice, I combine tools and strategies from conceptual art, relational art, and social practice with approaches and frameworks from other disciplines like urban planning, community development, social business, experiential pedagogy, and design. I think the power of being an artist [who is] working in the social sphere is that you can work with multiple modes and languages. Clearly, there’s a practical and social aspect to the project. But the way it uses playful and performative registers, and the way it engages with history, metaphor, symbolism, and meaning-making very much comes out of contemporary art.
NJC: Fallen Fruit Collective, Fritz Haeg, Nils Norman, and many other artists are planting edibles in public space. Where do you see The Boston Tree Party within that discourse? What sets your project apart from others?
LG: I’m a big fan of all three of those artists and collectives. Fritz is actually an advisor for The Boston Tree Party. I think the project definitely engages with that discourse of public space, food production, lifestyle, and community engagement.
One thing that’s unique about The Boston Tree Party is that it’s bringing together a huge and diverse coalition of Boston area organizations, institutions, and communities. The project will create a decentralized public urban orchard that crosses social, political, economic, and geographic boundaries. The project is also structured to create many different opportunities to build connections both within and across communities. The idea is to create a framework that participating communities can enter and take hold of.
In addition, I’ve created a new, independent nonprofit social venture called Hybrid Vigor Projects to produce The Boston Tree Party. I’m interested in creating a new model for developing and producing this kind of large-scale participatory public project outside of institutional structures.
NJC: What food issues is Boston currently facing?
LG: Like all major American cities, there are neighborhoods that have limited access to fresh and healthy foods. But the amazing thing about Boston is that there is a large group of incredibly inspiring and dedicated people and organizations working to change that fact, and working to create a food system that’s more sustainable and socially just. Many of these individuals and organizations are part of The Boston Tree Party coalition, and it’s a huge honor to be working with them. One of the hopes of the project is that it will act as a platform for all the phenomenal organizations and initiatives in the city.
NJC: Do you know how much “civic fruit” is currently available in Boston?
LG: Boston actually has a fairly long history of public fruit. A state initiative in the 1980s called “Fruition” planted large numbers of fruit trees and berries across the area. A former organization called Earthworks also planted fruit trees in many neighborhoods. We see ourselves as taking up this mantle and carrying it forward.
NJC: Your objective is to plant 100 pairs as opposed to individual trees. What’s the significance of planting in pairs?
LG: Apple trees need to be planted in heterogeneous pairs to cross-pollinate. You can’t plant two Baldwins, for instance—you’d have to plant, say, a Baldwin and a Roxbury Russet. There’s also a beautiful metaphor here. Like apple trees, we too are interdependent—we can’t create “fruit” alone. Nor can we create fruit with those just like ourselves—we need to move across difference to create new ideas and social change.
Another interesting thing about apple trees is that they can be planted up to a quarter mile apart and still cross-pollinate. This means that one pair of trees can be split between two nearby communities. For instance, we have a synagogue that is partnering with a church down the road to form a single “Delegation” [as we refer to participating organizations]; each will be planting one tree. This is exactly the kind of social “cross-pollination” we want to support.
NJC: Heirloom fruits and vegetables are typically associated with affluence. How have you strategized planting so that the project meets your goal of providing greater access to all residents (i.e. class levels) of Boston?
LG: Apples are an incredibly democratic fruit. Everyone has eaten an apple. They are everywhere in our culture. Think, “As American as apple pie” or “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” And so, we’ve found that the idea of older historic varieties fascinates people from all backgrounds, especially since one of the apple varieties we’re planting is the Roxbury Russet, the oldest named variety of apple from the United States. Roxbury is a very diverse neighborhood in Boston, and I think that the communities of Roxbury feel a lot of pride in their apple!
NJC: What are some of your other strategies for building community with The Boston Tree Party?
LG: This project is built on relationships. I think it’s extremely important to develop relationships with the people you’re working with and to listen closely to feedback. The design of this project went through a number of different iterations informed by feedback from many people coming from very different perspectives.
NJC: What do people need to participate?
LG: If a community wants to be a Tree Planting Delegation, they need access to land where they can plant at least one tree, a space with a 15-foot diameter. Or, they need to seek a partner in their community who has access to land. Each participating Tree Planting Delegation with get a Tree Party Kit, which will include trees, compost, mulch, two commemorative Tree Party shovels, two commemorative Tree Party plaques, a Tree Party flag, Tree Party buttons, and a copy of The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist.
Our two big events, The Boston Tree Party Inauguration and The Boston Tree Party Convention, are both open to the public. The Inauguration will be the ceremonial planting of the first pair of trees in the campaign, and it will begin with a parade of Delegations to the planting site. The Convention will be an opportunity to bring everyone together after the plantings are completed, both to celebrate the plantings and to engage with the larger social, political, and environmental issues embedded in the project. That’s taking place at the Old South Meeting House, where participants of the original Boston Tea Party first gathered.
NJC: What happens after The Inauguration on April 10? How will you support and sustain The Boston Tree Party as apples grow over the years and locals continue to plant?
LG: Creating an ongoing framework of support has been an integral part of the project design. We’re partnering with YouthBuild Boston to create the Apple Corps, which will be an “extension service” of sorts for The Boston Tree Party. The members of the Apple Corps, who are studying landscape design and horticulture, will be able to offer support by phone and email, and potentially do site visits. They will be advised by our two official pomologists, John Bunker and Michael Phillips, who have been guiding the horticultural side of the project. We’re also partnering with four of the major Boston area gardening education organizations — Boston Natural Areas Network, City Sprouts, Groundwork Somerville, and NOFA/Mass — to create the Apple Alliance. The Apple Alliance will offer free and low cost organic apple tree care workshops for participating communities. In the fourth year of the project, the year of the first real harvest, we’ll be organizing a citywide harvest festival with apple cider pressings, workshops on cooking with your apples, pie baking contests, apple tastings, and more. We want to sustain the energy of the project so that participating communities can establish their trees and make lasting social connections.
For more information about The Boston Tree Party, visit the project website.