Op/Ed: A Love for Trees

by | Aug 10, 2020

By Alan Clarke

As I drive around and see the damage done by fallen trees after the recent storm, I’m reminded of the change of heart I’ve had with trees beside the highways. I’ve been to Florida and places where trees are not as significant parts of the landscapes and are placed way back off the highway, away from utility lines. My property in St. Augustine has a stand of tall pines and I consider them beautiful as does almost everyone who sees them. Unfortunately, I am told that tall pines with foliage only at the top can break off in a storm and come down like a dart, even piercing a roof. I don’t know that this is true and no one has pointed any examples out to me. But I am looking into having them removed and a smaller, lower ground-foliage grouping to replace them. Nothing that will grow taller than 30 to 40 feet at the most. By the time they get that big, it will be someone else’s problem.

There’s the thing: take an old tree down and plant another one to take its place.

I have studied the efforts of Henry G. Russell (18??-1903), the man who almost single-handedly put a forest on the sandbar that was the Potowomut peninsula. In his time, his plantings, his arboretum, gained nationwide attention. Twenty years before Russell started his plantings, his brother-in-law, Thomas P. Ives III, who with his sister, Mrs. Russell, owned the entire property that is today’s Goddard Park, commissioned his workers to build the magnificent stonewall that graces the park side of Ives Road. As the wall construction advanced along the road, Mr. Ives saw to it that trees were planted as well. Those trees grace Ives Road today. The entire project began in January 1852 and I can’t find any record on when it was completed. Thomas Ives died at the end of the Civil War as a result of his participation in the blockade at the Chesapeake. He did not see the wonder of that wall and the trees that in the fall provide a canopy of outrageous color such that you cannot get from one end of the road to the other without being wonderstruck. 

Some time around, I’m guessing, 30 years back, the state Department of Transportation dug up Ives Road and repaved it. Part of the project involved removing most of those trees. Without saying anything, they painted orange crosses on them. Seeing those markings meaning they were to be removed sent up a battle from those who live past Goddard Park and the state had to back down. They did not cut down those old trees.

Now Mr. Russell, who took over Thomas Ives’ love of that land, would have—I’m sure—walked down the road and put a slash mark on each tree. He did that to any inferior trees, a slash mark meant his crew would remove the tree. Mr. Russell would have seen to it that a new tree was planted to take its place. That’s what he did. It is said that he walked the woods with a broad knife and a pocket full of acorns. He would find a sick or inferior tree, mark it to be removed and with his walking stick, he would poke three holes on the ground and put an acorn in each hole. One for the squirrels, one for the worms, and one for the tree which would come from it. 

Back along Ives Road, it was clear to me and those of us who fought to save those trees that they were old and dying. They still stand there and anyone can see that they are well past their prime. When we put the kibosh on their removal, we forestalled the inevitable. And the state is patient. We should have demanded the state plant new ones so that as the old trees were removed, the new ones were mature enough to take their place. We didn’t ask and the state didn’t offer. So the old, sick, and dying trees still stand, 170 years after they were planted, for most, 50 years past their prime.

It appears to me that the state, in its wisdom, is planting trees inside the wall instead. With today’s accumulating death toll along that road from speeding, they must feel the wall is a safer thing to hit than a solid tree trunk. And I suppose they are right. It’s easier to repair a section of stone wall than repair a broken life. But we will all miss that autumn canopy of bright red, orange, yellow, and green as one drives down the road. 

Fortunately, the section of Ives Road that borders the Park is blessed with underground utility lines. There’s not a pole until one gets to the Potowomut Golf Club at which point, the wires come up out of the ground and proceed on poles down to Sandy Point. 

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we have to rethink insisting that utility lines have to coexist with trees that will inevitably fall and take down the power lines in storms. I love our trees but we are not good stewards like Mr. Russell and Mr. Ives. We allow them to get old and diseased rather than remove them while there’s still a chance we can replace them with fresh plantings not capable of bringing such storm damage. I don’t have an answer. I’m just opening up the possibility that power loss problems will only get worse until we come up with the answer, either bury the lines or trim the trees back off the road so they won’t fall on power lines. The power companies pay to trim these old giants every year but we pay the power companies. National Grid never has to trim the trees along Ives Road as it passes the park.

Alan Clarke, cemetery and tree lover, is a member of the East Greenwich News board.

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Claudia M Smith
Claudia M Smith
August 12, 2020 8:36 am

Thank you for this timely story Alan Clarke. My mother always said storms are Nature’s way of pruning. Probably the most pleasant tree in town to admire is the oak in between the bleachers and the basketball court at Academy Field. You have to be seated in the concrete stands to really catch its silhouette. I noticed, then fell in love with this view some fifteen years ago when my sons and their friends started playing town softball. Hope to be back next year.

Eleanor J Greene
Eleanor J Greene
August 12, 2020 5:54 pm

Thank you Alan for your stance on the trees along Ives Rd., and the great suggestion that as one falls or is diseased it be replaced. Such an easy thing to do today but not easy if the powers that be don’t enforce it. Hope your column opens some eyes and gets some results.


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