This Old Tree with Doug Still
Tree Story Shorts III (Transcript)
Season 2, Episode 4
January 8, 2024
Doug Still: [00:05]
Hi, all. Welcome back to This Old Tree, the show that features heritage trees and the human stories behind them. I'm Doug Still and today I've got a third edition of “Tree Story Shorts” for you. This is when guests take over and submit their own stories about trees they're thinking about or that have a special meaning. In this episode, we're going to hear about Charles Darwin; bride and groom trees; a massive American Elm in Illinois; Al Capone; original tree-inspired music; a tree used for meetings at an army base; and a moving story from war-torn Ukraine. Tree Story Shorts. Coming up on This Old Tree.
[This Old Tree theme]
Doug Still: [01:06]
We start off with a story from Rob McBride, a tree-promoting celebrity in the UK known as the Tree Hunter. Rob has been finding and recording Britain's ancient trees for nearly two decades. His collaboration with the Woodland Trust and other work he's done has been covered by the BBC and the New York Times. And he's an ambassador for the European Tree of the Year contest. His passion for old trees is contagious. Recently, he's been leading a public campaign to save a tree called the Darwin Oak, as well as other veteran trees from a proposed road project near his hometown.
Rob McBride: [01:44]
Yeah, my name is Rob McBride, sometimes known as the Tree Hunter. I am based in a small town in North Shropshire called Ellesmere. So, very close to Wales, about a mile from the Welsh border and about 15 miles away from Shrewsbury, where I was born, which is where the Darwin Oak sits gracefully for the last 550 years. In recent times, the last 30 or 40 years, there's been a push to get almost, well, a complete circle around the county town of Shrewsbury. There is a bypass existing road, but many people with more commercial interests want to complete the circle and build what many feel is a non-necessary road. And that's the starting point, really. We don't want the road.
So, on that premise, in 2010 - I think I was off work at the time with a broken wrist or something, I'd done something. So, I went and I surveyed the route and I surveyed about 80 veteran trees at the time that I felt would be affected by the route. Overall, now with the latest plans, I think they're looking at felling over 1200 trees. And when I did my initial survey, I was only on the north side of the river. Having then been contacted years later when the road project resurfaced, I went the other side of the river and met a fantastic lady called Karen Pearce, who runs Love Shelton Rough it's called, a group on Facebook. And Shelton Rough is an area where the Darwin Oak sits and grows, and it's very close to Charles Darwin's home.
Obviously, coming from Shropshire, I knew Charles Darwin was from Shrewsbury. But until we had the meeting, I didn't realize how close he lived to that part of the town, Shelton. And subsequently we got talking and they said, “Oh, he just lived over there.” So, Karen and myself, we said, “Wow, Darwin lived there.” And I've had experience of naming trees like “The Oak at the Gate of the Dead” in 2006, which is now quite a famous tree. And I've written a piece this year-- last year, sorry, for King Charles there is a new book that came out. He picked that as one of the best trees in the country.
So, when you name a tree - it's a very hot topic at the moment with the politicians, they're very upset. They're now calling it the “so-called” Darwin Oak. They're casting doubt about the authenticity of why it's called this. It's only just been called this recently, but you've got to name a tree at some time. So, Mike Streetly, who is a very learned chap, he visited the National Library of Wales and has found Darwin's notebooks and photographed them, where he mentions that he walked with his father in the fields where the Darwin Oak grows, looking for shells. It was all part of his many research projects over many years.
Initially, he was born there and lived there till he was about 17, and then he moved away and did the expeditions and then he came back at various times. But there's documentary evidence that Darwin was traipsing around these fields and there's no doubt in my mind that a tree that would have been then 300 years plus, so a mature oak tree, a large oak tree, would have caught his attention. And it doesn't take much speculation to think of him wandering around, feeling a bit tired and having to sit underneath the shade of the tree.
This tree is around 7 meters, so 23, 24 feet in circumference, in girth as we say. Well over 500 years old. It's been aged by one of the arboricultural specialists in Shrewsbury. It's a mighty, mighty impressive oak tree. But from that meeting where there were several people, Tory councilors, who spoke, the language they used to talk about nature led me to come out with the statement that, "We're dealing with dinosaurs here." I said, "I can imagine Darwin sitting under there thinking about evolution. And then, you've got these dinosaurs roaming the corridors of power." And that was a quote that the newspapers quite liked. I suspect it didn't gain me any friends in the corridors of power and the shire hall etc.
We're living in one of the most nature-depleted countries here in the UK on the planet now, and we've got a duty to our kids and our grandkids to try and rapidly reverse this trend of destruction and greed. So, when you're against these people, you really do have to try and up your game. I persuaded them to call it the Darwin Oak in the end, and it's taken off really from there.
And hopefully-- like we've had a painting we did in Sheffield. I took quite a famous artist, the youngest artist to ever paint Her Majesty the Queen, called Dan Llywelyn Hall, a Welsh artist, I took him to Sheffield and it was very successful. And we had an outdoor painting-- paint-off day, if you like. And there's going to be an exhibition in March for 100 artists to exhibit their Darwin Oak masterpieces. I'm hoping a friend of mine, I call her a friend now I speak to her reasonably often, is Bianca Jagger. I'm hoping Bianca will come up to open the exhibition. We'll see. I might have to go to London and pick her up. But anyway, we'll see. One ceramicist, fantastically skilled Lady Ruth Gibson, she has a studio in the town, and she took Darwin Oak leaf molds and she's produced 500 ceramic leaves with a gold flash on and all, that you can buy for 5 pounds. And they sold out very quickly, so she's doing another batch of them. So, when you have art involved with trees, it brings a different dimension to it.
But there are a series of events coming. There's a Ceili, there's a dance-off. There's a legal challenge hopefully being mounted. If we can gain enough money from an appeal and the petition, if you can sign the petition at change.org, Save the Darwin Oak. So, yeah, I'd just like to say thanks very much, Doug, for the opportunity to chat here today. And number one, sign the petition. Number two, if you've got a spare pound or two, try and help the legal challenge to get the road project reviewed. And number three, we are hoping that they are not like Sheffield Council and are not going to come in the middle of the night and chop the tree down before the road has legally been given the go-ahead. We're just hoping. It's a bit of a big hope that politicians do the decent thing. But anyway, we hope they do.
Doug Still: [08:35]
It was really cool getting to know Rob. Clearly many other people feel the same way he does about the Darwin Oak, as the petition has received over 95,000 signatures as of this recording. You can also check out Rob's other work at thetreehunter.com or @thetreehunter on Instagram.
No doubt the British revere their old trees, and technically the next tree we'll hear about involves Brits too, although they were colonists in Amherst, Massachusetts, prior to independence. Guest, Georgia Barnhill, tells us about an historic sycamore there, which was one of a pair planted in the 1760’s to celebrate a young couple's marriage.
Georgia Barnhill: [09:18]
Hi, I am Georgia Barnhill, president of the Amherst Massachusetts Historical Society, and I am eager to share information about our groom tree, a sycamore located in front of our headquarters. The tree is an icon in the center of town. Its crown, possibly 100 feet tall, towers over town hall and church steeples, and has its own lightning rod. It's not as tall as the sycamore some miles north in Sunderland, but it has a long, interesting history.
In about 1756, Nehemiah Strong built a house for himself and his wife, Hannah. The house became the property of the historical society in 1916. In 1761, Nehemiah Strong gave the house to his son, a graduate of Yale in 1756 who had returned to Amherst after studying law. We speculate that Nehemiah Strong gave two trees to Simeon when he married Sarah Wright on January 12, 1763. There was a custom of planting two long-lasting sycamores to celebrate marriages, and such trees were referred to as bride and groom trees. The groom tree, now some 250 to 270 years old, outlasted its owners by two centuries or more. The bride tree was removed in 1957 because of accumulated storm damage.
The groom tree was probably a sapling even before the town of Amherst was chartered in 1759. Perhaps, indigenous people used the bark of our tree's parent as little dishes to gather berries. Once the sapling was transplanted, it continued to grow, possibly as much as 2 feet per year as the Massachusetts Bay Colony evolved into the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. After the revolution in Daniel Shay's rebellion in the 1780s, the tree flourished as Amherst Academy was established in 1814 across the road. Emily Dickinson would have seen it every day when she attended the school from 1840 to 1847.
It has provided shade for countless residents and visitors, and its button balls and shed bark have been a source of wonder and enjoyment for Amherst children for generations.
Preserving ancient trees is an act full of meaning. Yes, the leaves capture their share of carbon dioxide. But the existence of the groom tree also speaks to the expectations and reputation of a family. The tree recalls the Strong Family, one of the most important in the town's early history. Simeon Strong was a Tory during the revolution, but remained a respected member of the community and the commonwealth. After his death in 1805, the bride and groom trees lived on. Simeon Strong Jr. and his wife, Louisa, lived in the house from 1806 to 1841, and they too enjoyed the shade of these trees. Other families came and went. Yet, the groom tree remains.
We hope our descendants will continue to revere the groom tree and to applaud the new bride tree as it grows, prospers, and watches over the activities of the historical society and the town. Recently, a grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts allowed for work to be done on the tree to keep it healthy and for a new bride to be planted to replace the missing one. The tree conforms to the mission of the historical society, which is to connect people to the history and culture of Amherst. Please come and see our tree.
Doug Still: [12:40]
Thank you, Georgia. You know, I occasionally hear about the old tradition of bride and groom trees, but as far as I can tell, they are largely undocumented. I imagine many of them are still around us here on the East Coast, often with a missing partner. Wouldn't it be a great project if someone would research and collect information on them somehow? I'm talking to you, grad students. Definitely something to be proud of at the Amherst Historical Society.
As a former city forester, I know how important it is to protect old trees, keep them safe and healthy, and help people overcome their fears of them. That's why I easily relate to the next story by Joe Hansen, who, like me, is an urban forester. He also hosts a show which you need to check out. It's called The Municipal Arborist Podcast. Easy to find on all platforms. He's here to tell us about an American elm that has spanned the generations.
Joe Hansen: [13:35]
My name is Joe Hansen, and being as I am the host and producer of The Municipal Arborist Podcast, I thought it would be fitting to discuss a significant tree from my previous role working as the urban forester for the city of Park Ridge, Illinois. I've since moved on to a role in another village. However, this particular tree will remain in my memories. The city is located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. In fact, its southern border is adjacent to Chicago, and the tree resides in the 400 block of Wisner Street. I received a resident request to inspect a parkway tree who reported that it had a cable dangling from one of its limbs. Upon arrival, I found the tree did indeed have a cable which had snapped. The cables installed were meant to assist in structurally supporting the tree, and this tree was impressive.
It was a large American elm tree measuring 67 inches in diameter, or over 17 and a half feet circumference. Its stout trunk took up nearly the entire parkway and split to four very large leads, which created the iconic vase shape that, when adjoining other elms, would create the infamous cathedral line streets which existed prior to the introduction of Dutch elm disease, which wiped out the majority of these native trees in North America by the 1980’s.
We checked the state's champion tree list and no other recorded tree matched its size. Of course, I imagined they did exist, they just hadn't been documented in Illinois. I spoke to the resident named Warring, who invited me inside. I typically do not enter residents’ homes. However, he was very kind, warm and welcoming, and he seemed like he just needed some company for a little bit. He was in his late 80’s, early 90’s. He moved pretty slow, but he enthusiastically shared with me that he had lived in this home his entire life and it was at first his grandmother's home. He also shared with me some old photos of the tree dating back to the 1940’s. One of these photos was with him and his grandmother standing in front of it when he was a young child.
After speaking for a bit, I eventually left and we had our contractors trim the tree and install some new cables. Several years later, I received a request to inspect the tree from the home's new residence. Unfortunately, the previous owner had passed away. The new residents were concerned of the massive tree potentially failing onto the home where their newborn slept, a concern that I have heard many times before. We went ahead and hired a consultant to perform some advanced testing on the tree, who determined it did not require removal. However, we did perform some more maintenance on the tree and installed some cables again.
I shared the story of Warring with the new residents as well as the old photos I had of the tree. They were happy that the tree was still standing, as was I. But they were also happy that they can continue on the legacy of the property and this iconic tree, and they understood the importance that it had to the community.
I share this story with you because often, working as an urban forester, we receive resident requests to remove parkway trees or prune parkway trees that don't require pruning because they're afraid of the tree failing on their house. Or conversely, after a tree has been removed, they don't want a new tree planted in the parkway. We often fail to realize that these trees outlive many of the residents who are living in these homes. And Warring is a great example of that, even though he had lived there into his 90s. But most homes people are only living in for a few years, maybe 10, 15, 20, when in fact, that tree may see three, four, five different residents living in that home. And that tree is an important piece to the urban forest. It is a great component of a community.
Doug Still: [17:31]
I love that Joe is able to make that connection to the past for the new homeowners, which the elm embodies. I think an overlooked part of our job is that placemaking aspect. When planting and preserving trees helps define space and the passage of time. In a strange way, we're the guardians of history.
Moving into stranger territory, sometimes trees have stories that are, well, infamous. Like Al Capone infamous. Grayson Bo Guthrie submitted this next piece that looks back at the famous criminal and a cherry planted in his honor. Grayson is a flower farmer, a florist, and also a Baltimore tree keeper. The TreeKeepers, is Baltimore's free citywide tree stewardship program, open to all residents interested in helping the city's trees. Its umbrella organization with many partners is called Tree Baltimore. Here's Grayson.
Grayson Bo Guthrie: [18:28]
Hi, I'm Grayson, and this is the story of the Al Capone Tree, which is this tree that grows in the Union Memorial Hospital courtyard in Baltimore, Maryland. And this tree, when you first approach it, what you notice is that it's a very bizarre looking tree. It looks like if you cut two trees in half and you paste one on top of the trunk of the other. And as it grew, that's exactly what happened. It's a scion that was taken from one tree and grafted onto the root stock of another tree. So, it's a weeping cherry tree. It has beautiful flowers in the spring.
And the reason this tree was planted was because in the 1920’s, Al Capone was this raging gangster. And Al Capone contracted syphilis in his early 20’s. So, he was very, very sick by the time he was incarcerated and in his final year in prison, actually, he was just confined to the hospital ward. So, when he was released, his cronies said, “Wow, we really need to take you to the hospital, boss.” So, they brought him to the closest hospital, which was Johns Hopkins, and they said, “No, we don't treat felons. No, thank you.” So, then they brought him to the next closest hospital, which was Union Memorial Hospital, and they said yes. So, as a thank you, Al Capone's cronies planted this cherry tree. And it's actually a tree that has been cloned, and now there are several little Al Capone trees throughout the courtyard of Union Memorial Hospital.
When I lived in Charles Village, the neighborhood that Union Memorial Hospital borders on, I used to take my friends on walks and tell them that story about this tree because it's such a cool tree with such a cool history. And everyone gets excited about trees when they learn about that story.
Doug Still: [20:47]
That reminds me of a poem.
“I think that I shall never see.
a poem lovely as a tree
that recalls a crook's STD.”
My apologies, Grayson and weeping cherry trees everywhere. Thank you so much for an entertaining story.
The next submission is a first for this old tree and I'm so excited. A story told to an original composition about a tree. It's by Kamala Sankaram, an exciting composer who moves freely between the worlds of experimental music and contemporary opera. She's written a number of operas, including The Last Stand for the trees of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Looking at You, a techno noir featuring live data mining of the audience, and the Parksville Murders, the world's first virtual reality opera. As a biracial Indian American and trained sitarist, Kamala has also drawn on Indian classical music in many of her works. She's won a number of awards and grants, and most recently was performing artist in residence at Brooklyn Botanic Garden addressing the theme, Power of Trees. Here's Kamala.
Kamala Sankaram: [22:03]
This is a story about a copper beech and the song it inspired, which is the song you're hearing right now. Hi, I'm Kamala Sankaram. I'm a composer and singer living in the Bronx, and even though I live in the Bronx now, this is not where I grew up. I grew up on the west coast in California, in a valley an hour inland from San Diego. The landscape where I grew up had a lot of scrub brush, grassland, wildflowers. And while it was beautiful, it was very, very different from the lush forests that you find in New York. I moved out here to go to school and I was immediately fascinated by this difference. The huge deciduous trees, the way that their fiery fall displays were so different from the consistent greens and browns that I grew up with.
And when I moved to the Bronx, I discovered Wave Hill, which is a garden on a former estate overlooking the Hudson River. Not only did I discover Wave Hill, I discovered what I like to think of as my copper beech. The tree is to the left of the main gate when you come in part way down a grassy slope, and it's hard to miss because it's enormous. The first time I saw it was in the springtime. Its canopy was fall and a deep red color with branches that arched over to touch the ground, creating this almost perfect circle around the trunk. And I had never seen a tree that looked like that before. I was immediately drawn to it, drawn to go and sit among the roots, to be surrounded and shielded by that perfect canopy. And that is a feeling that has not left.
No matter how many times I visit it, no matter how many people I bring. I like to think of it there, its silent presence across the years and centuries. And that's really where this song came from, is imagining the perspective of this tree. The song, Beech Face, because I love a good pun, is performed by me and my band, Bobby Ricky. And the lyrics are simple. Standing tall, bright red crown touch my face and time slows down. So, you think that you've seen all there is to see, but you don't know what I have seen.
[Beech Face song plays]
Doug Still: [25:29]
Kamala, that was amazing!I know that stunning beach tree, and I can see how it would inspire music that is pulsing with energy. Keep doing what you're doing and listeners, you can find out more about her work at kamalasankaram.com.
Shifting gears completely, this past summer I was at a reunion for my husband's family at a resort in North Carolina, and I had an hour to waste before the next event. So, I sat down at the pool bar and ordered a drink, and this guy sat down beside me and we struck up a conversation. Turns out his name is Lawarren Patterson and he is a retired army major general who has been all over the world and has earned a long list of decorations and service awards, too long to go into here. Who knew that we would become friends? And who knew that he has a wonderful tree story to share with the world?
Lawarren Patterson: [26:26]
Hello. My name is Warren. My tree story starts in 1988 in Germany. At that time, I was a young army captain, and I was fortunate to be commanding a company of 190 soldiers. My office was located on the first floor of the same building where my soldiers lived. We called it the barracks. Directly across the street from the barracks was our company motor pool, where our vehicles were stored and our soldiers worked. So, you can imagine the foot traffic that occurred all day, every day.
One fine April morning, while sitting at the desk in my first-floor office, I happened to spin my chair around to look out the window and across the street towards our motor pool. Also, in front of my window, about 15 feet away, was a beautiful, large tree. It was such a beautiful day and out of the blue, I suddenly thought how nice it would be if I could work outside. Then, it dawned on me. “Hey, you're the boss. Why not?”
So, I grabbed a small folding table known as a field table and a folding chair from our supply room in the basement. I set the table and chair up under the tree. I then went back in my office, grabbed my inbox, we didn't have computers back then, some pens. And I opened my window and set my desk phone outside on the windowsill so I could hear it if it rang and pick it up from my new outdoor location.
The minute I sat under that tree and began to work, I felt an immediate sense of calm and relaxation. My soldiers, walking to and from our barracks building and motor pool, didn't know what to think. In fact, more than a few had asked me in passing, “Everything okay, sir?” Me sitting out under that tree a few times a week to do my work not only impacted me in a positive way, but my soldiers as well. They started talking about how different and cool it was to see the boss sitting under the tree and working.
After doing this, a few weeks, various soldiers started coming over to the tree and asked why I was sitting outside and working. Then they would ask if they could sit and join me for a few minutes. My reply was always, “Yes, of course.” And they would sit down in the grass, and we would have wonderful and honest discussions about them, our organization, the military, and life. I learned so much about my soldiers and what was going on around that I started calling the tree my learning tree. That title came from a movie directed by the great Gordon Parks in the late 1960s. For the remaining 28 years of my army career, I always found the tree to sit under and work and read and converse with others. I had a learning tree during two assignments in Germany, two assignments in Korea, and assignments in the United States.
Thank you for listening, and I invite you all to go out and find your own learning tree at home or at work. You will be pleasantly surprised at the positive impact it will make on you, those around you, and your organization.
Doug Still: [29:33]
Sometimes, a small shift from normal routine can capture attention and shake up how we relate to each other, and trees have served as meeting places since time immemorial. It seems to me that's what happened under the learning tree, where commanding officers and subordinates could reveal themselves a bit more as human beings.
Our last story today is an extraordinary one because it is submitted by fellow tree advocates in Ukraine. The speaker is Olena Kozak, and she is representing a nonprofit called the Ukrainian Environmental Club, Green Wave. They are a team of ecological experts and members of the environmental community whose self-described mission is to educate people, minimize negative effects on the environment, and take care of the present and future of humankind. Olena tells us about a 600-year-old oak tree in the city of Irpin, which is near Kyiv. It's amazing what they've endured and what they are doing to make our world better against brutal forces.
Olena Kozak: [30:38]
My name is Elena. I am a member of nonprofit organization Ukrainian Ecological Club, Green Wave, and today I will tell you the story of 600 years old oak in Irpin as a symbol of invisibility. Irpin is a picture town near Kyiv. It's known for its serene beauty, surrounded by lush forest and adorned with ancient trees, some of which have stood for over a century. However, in the year 2022, the tranquility of Irpin was shattered as Russian forces occupied the region, transforming the once-peaceful streets into echoes of unsettling shelling. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the city was damaged by 70%. In that anxious time, many giant trees took the brunt of the shelling, protecting houses and people. One of these trees was a 600 years old oak, which became a symbol of invisibility, a silent guardian of the town and its people.
A few years prior to this event, the colossal oak faced its own battle for survival. The tree began to dry for an unknown reason. Concerned residents of Irpin initiated a tree survey and develop an action plan. Based on the results of the expert examination, it was decided that in order to save the tree, it is necessary to remove the covering, change the water and kettle, cut off the dead branches, and process the cavity and hollows. As a result, the condition of the tree improved.
During its century-long history, the oak has seen many events, but it has never seen such cruelty as from the Russian invaders in 2022. Destruction and house rained all around. People, houses, trees and everything around were destroyed. In the face of adversity, the trees became a defender, symbol of hope, a beacon in the darkness of time. The Oak of Irpin become a living testament to the power of unity, resilience, and the unwavering belief in a better future.
In 2023, expressing gratitude to the silent heroes, the residents of Irpin initiated an inventory and evaluation of the ancient trees. The aim was to designate them as local botanical monuments, ensuring they receive the care and recognition they deserve. The initiative symbolizes not just a commitment to preserving nature, but also a collective acknowledgment of the strength and endurance embodied by the ancient trees that had become symbols of hope in Irpin's turbulent history.
Doug Still: [33:47]
Wow. You've got to hand it to people who are fighting to preserve trees when they are fighting to preserve their own lives. There was a woman from Green Wave out of Ukraine named Oleksandra who spoke at a conference in Washington, DC recently, the World Forum on Urban Forests. I attended her talk, which is where I heard about this amazing group of urban foresters. She said she and her colleagues took a pause during one of their projects to ask, "Why are we doing this when there is a war going on and we are fighting for our country and our survival?" And the answer was,”Because we have to. This is what we do. This is what we do.”
I'd like to thank you for listening today to this collection of Tree Story Shorts. And I'd like to thank all our guests for taking the time to submit audio stories. Rob McBride, Georgia Barnhill, Joe Hansen, Grayson Bo Guthrie, Kamala Sankaram, Lawarren Patterson, and Olena Kozak, and all members of the Ukrainian Ecological Club, Green Wave. Keep checking in on Facebook and Instagram. I'll be posting pictures of many of these fascinating trees, and other information and links about them can be found in the show notes and on the website thisoldtree.show.
I'm Doug Still, and this is This Old Tree. See you next time.
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