Every once in a while, when Waite Maclin is helping a group of schoolchildren plant a fruit tree, one will ask: “Are you Johnny Appleseed?”
“No,” Maclin usually replies, “but I feel very close to him.”
Maclin, 81, and his sapling-sized helpers have planted and nurtured more than 200 trees – mostly fruit trees – throughout Portland, including at Reiche Elementary School, the East End Community School and Riverton Elementary School. After the trees are planted, Maclin provides seasonally appropriate lessons on how to prune, mulch and protect the trees, as well as prepare them for winter. In winter, he shows the kids how to make applesauce.
Maclin, the recipient of this year’s Source Elder Award, says he wants the kids to understand that the food they get at the grocery store didn’t grow there.
“Apples don’t just appear,” he said. “They don’t fall out of heaven. They go through a process to get there. For the kids to make that connection between what they eat and where it comes from is a huge, huge learning for them.”
Maclin is an Episcopal priest who also worked as a therapist in Portland for 29 years. His love of fruit trees began in his own small apple orchard at the second home in Cushing he shared with his late wife, Christine. The backyard orchard was the inspiration for the “Pastor Chuck” applesauce and apple butter line of products he made for eight years. (Slogan: “One taste and you’ll know the difference between good and evil.”) He closed the business about four years ago because the cost of production got too high, but he still lovingly tends to the coastal orchard of 80 to 90 trees.
The tree programs at Portland schools are coordinated by Cultivating Community’s food corps, but it was city arborist Jeff Tarling who recruited Maclin. Maclin was consulting with Tarling about the removal of a tree at his Portland home when Tarling mentioned he needed someone to help children at the Reiche school plant fruit trees. “I just jumped at the chance,” Maclin said.
Laura Mailander, an urban agriculture specialist with Cultivating Community, said Maclin tells the children “great stories” of his Cushing orchard and country living, and brings them apples and apple butter, “feeding the kids metaphorically, and they also leave with a snack.”
For some of the children, he is a surrogate grandfather.
“He brings the wisdom of his generation to a younger generation, which I think is often such a gap in our schools, that we don’t have elders connected to our youth,” Mailander said. “There’s so much wisdom to be shared both ways.”
At one of the schools, Mailander said, children were pulling bark off the trees in the playground. Maclin explained that the bark was the tree’s skin and how it hurt the tree to tear it off.
“They get it, that these are living things that they are responsible for,” Mailander said.
In 2014, Maclin became a founding member of Friends of Portland Maine “Forest City” Trees, an organization that focuses on the environmental benefits of having forests within the city limits and on the “edible landscapes” provided by orchards. The group joined the city, Fedco Trees and other community organizations to create the Mount Joy Orchard at the East End Community School, a public orchard that has been planted with apple, pear and peach trees. Eventually, any Portland resident will be able to enjoy the fruits. The Friends group has also planted more than 40 fruit trees around Portland Arts and Technology High School, providing the students with an orchard to study and care for year-round.
For the past three years, Maclin has taught 60 high school students a year soil enrichment and seasonal tree care at the orchard located at Boyd Street Urban Farm in Kennedy Park. He also holds free “citizen gardener” workshops for adults there through Cultivating Community.
Cultivating Community estimates that in all, Maclin has taught at least 500 young people in the city about fruit trees, in addition to all the adults he has trained. That’s a lot of people, but though in his eighth decade, Maclin isn’t tired.
“It has helped keep me young,” he said.