This Old Tree

Tree Story Shorts

December 08, 2022 Doug Still Season 1 Episode 7
This Old Tree
Tree Story Shorts
Show Notes Transcript

This a special episode of This Old Tree, the show that features heritage trees and the human stories behind them. This time, listeners tell their own tree stories! From Vermont to California to Hawaii, listen to what people have to say about the trees that inspire them. 

Tom Morra
Arborist and Owner, TF Morra Tree Care

Katie Breukers
Arborist and Host of Tangled Trees podcast
Student at University of New Brunswick

Jean Zimmerman
Author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, articles, and a blog
Certified arborist, currently consults with New York City on tree preservation

Andy Hillman
Retired Urban Forester
City of Ithaca, NY and Davey Resource Group

Thomas Spadea
Park Ranger and Host of My Favorite Trees podcast

Bear Levangie
Arborist and Co-Founder of Women's Tree Climbing Workshop

Walt Warriner
Consulting Arborist

Mike Maino
Radio Show Host - WCRI, Barbershop Singer, Entertainer

Theme Music
Diccon Lee,

Dahn Hiuni,

Transcripts available.

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We want to hear about the favorite tree in your life! To submit a ~3 or 4 minute audio story for consideration for an upcoming episode of "Tree Story Shorts" on This Old Tree, record the story on your phone’s voice memo app and email to:

This episode was written in part at LitArts RI, a community organization and co-working space that supports Rhode Island's creators.


[This Old Tree theme]

 Doug Still: Welcome to a special episode of This Old Tree, the show that features heritage trees and the human stories behind them. I'm your host, Doug Still. This time, we're taking a break from a big feature story to let listeners tell their own tree stories. As I like to say, do not underestimate the power of storytelling to motivate and inspire people to protect trees. There's a growing body of scientific research that quantifies the ecosystem benefits of trees. How much carbon they store, how they contribute to cleaner water, how they improve public health, the role of tree canopy in mitigating climate change, and this is all crucial to bolster efforts to plant trees and protect forests. But tell the tree's backstory and better yet, give it a name, and you will see loud public advocacy like you've never seen it before. Besides, as human beings, we just love stories. So, here's your turn. I hope you enjoy these as much as I have. Let's jump right in with tree story shorts.

[This Old Tree theme]

Tom Morra: This is a story of perseverance. The story of the little Mexican palm tree that could, if you will. I'm here on the island of Cozumel, where my wife and I have had a place since early 2005. In 2005, there was the mother of all hurricanes that happened to pass over the island of Cozumel and decided to sit on top of the island for 72 hours. The maximum sustained winds at the southern part of the island were 185 mph. So, it was a beast. Her name was Wilma. And the trees here on the island have just about recovered maybe three to five years ago, the effects of Wilma were no longer obvious. So, a solid 15-year recovery for the vegetation.

Anyway, this is before Facebook, but we had a little message board and we used to frequent it all the time, sharing information about the island. Anyway, after the hurricane, there was a fellow named Antonio Martinez, who's still around, I think. He's a tour guide and works at one of the hotels. He was one of the first people to make a trip around the island to the east side, which is basically uninhabited, no infrastructure, just a road along the ocean with a beautiful coastline. So, Antonio took a ride around the island after the hurricane and he found that most everything had been leveled, except for this one little coconut palm, which is not a native here. They were brought to the Americas in the 1500s, but very naturalized all over the Caribbean and South America. But as he drove around the island, he made the turn onto the east side road passing south. And there's this one little palm tree that made it through that storm, through those 185 miles an hour winds. And he posted a picture of it on the message board with the quote from the Elton John song, "I'm Still Standing."

Now, to this day, every time I drive around the east side of the island, there's a big barren patch of lower palms and different types of sea grape and lower vegetation. But there's that one tree and it's there to greet you as you come around the corner of the island. And I can't help but sing the song in my head every time I drive around. So, I'm Still Standing, the story of the little Mexican coconut palm that persists to this day.


Doug Still: That was Tom Morra, arborist and owner of TF Morra Tree Care here in Rhode Island, bringing us a story of a tree that persevered through a ferocious storm. Here's another professional arborist, Katie Breukers, who is continuing her education at the University of New Brunswick in urban forest ecology, and who also hosts a podcast called Tangled Trees. Check it out. She tells us about a charming old horse chestnut that has also persevered because of and somewhat in spite of past efforts to care for it.

Katie Breukers: I would like to share my favorite tree experience as an arborist. In Stratford, Ontario, on a corner just off of the main street, there is a beautiful, mature specimen with quite a story. This horse chestnut has been there for, I don't even know how many years. It is a staple within that community. While I was working on this tree, I had multiple neighbors come out to ensure that I wasn't actually removing it. They continued to share stories with me about how they grew up with that tree, and how they had seen it change over the years, and how there wasn't really many like it in the area.

The coolest part about this tree from when I first walked up to it is, there's a girdled metal bench that was cut away a few years back. This tree was originally planted in the middle of a round metal bench. So, I often find myself wondering, what type of stories were shared or what type of moments were shared on that bench before it was cut away.

A little further up in the trunk, there's lots of concrete. So, this is a traditional method in our arboriculture to support a tree, one that is now clearly wrong. Beyond this, there's cavities upon cavities in this trunk. It creates this gnarly, beautiful, abstract-looking formation. Within these cavities is an ecosystem in itself from fungi to bacteria to insects. The most adorable of all is a family of raccoons. While I was climbing and preserving this tree and doing full assessments, I had this fluffy face pop out of a cavity and greet me. I committed in that moment that I was going to do everything I could to preserve this tree and keep it there for years to come.

Unfortunately, even though, it was previously cabled and braced, a section of the main trunk had failed. It was up to me to take this out safely, remove any hazard to the client, and then also reduce the overall canopy to prevent that from happening. I installed a dynamic cable system to a lead that was remaining just because I knew that wind forces and wind loading would now be thrown off, because this lead that had failed would create a new exposure.

Overall, this tree is magnificent. It's one of the most twisted and stunning examples of what a mature specimen can be in an urban environment. It really shows how much ecosystem benefit an old tree being retained in the landscape can have. I really hope it stands for future generations, because I know for the previous generations before me, it was already a centerpiece and I think we need more of that in this world.


Doug Still: Next, we hear from Jean Zimmerman, arborist and author of seven books who has made the history of Manhattan a central focus in both her fiction and nonfiction. She's working on a new book entitled Heartwood: The Epic Tale of America's Forests and the Battle Over Their Fate. But right now, it's the copper beech that most captures her imagination.

Jean Zimmerman: My name is Jean Zimmerman. My favorite tree would have to be the copper beech, Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea. When I was growing up in a little town in New York's Hudson valley, we would gather beneath what we called the elephant tree. The landmark stood on the overgrown lawn of the long-abandoned mansion of Billie Burke, famed as Glinda The Good Witch in Wizard of Oz. The tree drew kids of all ages to congregate beneath its distinctive umbrella like branches. Tree guru, Michael Dirr, chose the copper beech as "one of my great plant loves." And from childhood, it has been one of mine too.

A local attraction in my hometown, the elephant tree's knob-kneed trunk resembled nothing so much as the thick legs of its namesake animal. Here was every kid's dream, a private, self-contained refuge from the wider world. From the outside, long branches twisted sinuously from the crown to the ground spreading outward like a hoop skirt. Inside this protected space, we found cathedral light and branches that were perfect for climbing. Kids hid there, gossiped there, made out there. The trunk was hashed with initials and hearts.

Brought to America in the 1660s, the towering European beech tops out at a full 70 feet. The cultivar copper beech takes its place among many landmarked gardens and properties. The grand homes of Newport are known for their beeches. Lyndhurst in Terrytown, New York, the former estate of Robber Baron, Jay Gould boasts an imposing collection. Wave Hill, the public garden in New York city's Riverdale section of the Bronx, features two copper beeches that sit across a park lane from each other like kissing cousins. Wave Hill has a storied past, including notable occupants such as Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain. The latter said of the estate, "I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts here I have ever known on land. They sing their horse song through the big treetops with a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always."

Copper might be a slight mischaracterization of the hue of the trees leaves, which can change over the course of a season from a reddish purple in spring to blackish purple by summer. As for those knees, the older trunks have bulges and burls that are quite unlike any other tree. And something about its bark begs for the jackknives of starry-eyed young romantics. At Wave Hill, the trunk of one tree has been pretty well-graffiti-gouged, while the other cousin is pristine. Many people over time have found beech bark useful for leaving your mark.

On a stage road in Tennessee, Daniel Boone once killed a bear. Nearby stood a huge beech tree and Boone carved into its trunk, "D Boone killed a bar in 1760." Virginia Woolf name checked the beech in night and day. "It seemed a mere toss-up whether, she said I love you, or whether she said I love the beech trees, or only I love, I love."

 Some people find autobiographical messages on beech bark annoying. I don't. Thorough said, "I frequently tramped 8 or 10 miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree. I like to think of some lost soul slogging miles through a mysterious, tangled forest, too shy to unburden himself to the person he cares for, and surreptitiously taking switchblade out of pocket to pronounce on bark indelibly the sentiment, I love. I love."

Beechnuts can be consumed by deer, and bear, as well as by birds and rodents and by humans, who have been known to roast and brew them in place of coffee. A nice place to drink a cup would be under the sweeping, twisted, copper-colored branches of an elephant tree. Ghosts of Mark Twain, Daniel Boone, and Virginia Woolf, you are cordially invited.


Doug Still: Also in New York State is Andy Hillman. As a former city forester and past president of the Society of Municipal Arborists, Andy has a long history of promoting new methods for getting trees to grow to their full potential and also communicating with people. He has a way of seeing things in a way that we don't. Could it be the birds that helped his favorite tree reach for the sky?

Andy Hillman: Back in the 1990s, I was city forester for Ithaca, New York, and working with Dr. Nina Bassett on bare root tree planting. We planted a lot of different species bare root. We would try them in the spring, try them in the fall. We did a lot of experimentation. And we planted lots of oaks. One of the oaks we planted was Skymaster English oak, Quercus robur Skymaster. That tree has been a really good performer for us in Ithaca.

One in particular that I'm really fond of, I planted in front of a gentleman's house whose name was Guy Gerard. And Guy was French. He called them French oaks, not English oaks. I think they have a different take on Quercus robur. I believe that's the oak that they use for wine barrels. Anyway, Guy was really happy with this little, tiny oak tree we planted. It was an inch and three-quarter bare root tree, cost the city about $80 back in the late 90s and was planted with volunteers from Dr. Bassett's Cornell University class.

 Well, Guy hung a bird feeder in that tree. It wasn't real tiny, it was about 8ft, 9ft tall, an inch and three quarter in diameter. He hung a big bird feeder in it, and I was a little concerned about that. He liked the tree so much that I just thought, "Okay, we'll just leave it there." Anyway, I don't know if it was the bird droppings or Guy's care and watering, but that tree really took off. Today, it towers over the three-story building in which he had his apartment. It truly is a Skymaster.

When I drive by there, I think, "Wow, that was such a bargain for the city." It wasn't all that long ago that it was just planted. And now, it's an amazing tree doing all that work for the city, all the good ecosystem benefits that we want from our urban forest. So, I really recommend Quercus robur Skymaster. And Guy Gerard, I don't know where he is these days, but I hope he still gets to enjoy that tree as well. Thanks.


Doug Still: From New York, we head to Yosemite National Park in California to appreciate the unexpected. Our next guest is Thomas Spadea, the host of the My Favorite Trees Podcast. I love the podcast because it dives deep into the characteristics of featured tree species and how cultural history overlaps with their ecological or natural history. Here's Thomas.

Thomas Spadea: Hi, my name is Thomas. I am a podcast host and seasonal park ranger. In the summer of 2021, I was working in King's Canyon National Park in California. But in October of that year, I had to be evacuated due to the KNP Complex fire. I was temporarily relocated to nearby Yosemite National Park, which was exciting for me, because I had never been there. One of the days I was there, I was exploring Yosemite Valley and enjoying the yellow gold shade of the fall season, and I saw a pop of orange-red in the corner of my eye. This made me stop in my tracks, because I realized I was looking at this beautiful sugar maple. I love sugar maples personally, because they were the first trees I ever learned how to identify. But this tree in particular surprised me, because sugar maples don't naturally grow anywhere west of the Great Plains, and I was thousands of miles from this tree's native forest. I wondered what on earth this tree was doing so far from home and later learned that this tree, this sugar maple was a remnant of one of this valley's past lives.

California's gold rush in the mid-19th century brought waves of settlers who explored the Sierra Nevada mountains. But instead of finding gold, some found the most beautiful glacially carved valleys in the world and decided to settle there. Where protected meadows now exist, a western frontier town had once taken over Yosemite Valley and the townspeople took to making a comfortable life for themselves. This included planting non-native trees. In many cases, they planted fruit trees like apple trees, and these would feed their families. But in other cases, settlers planted trees that simply reminded them of the home that they had left behind, including this sugar maple that stands just opposite the Yosemite Chapel.

And yes, it's in a national park and it's a species that's not native to the valley, but it's not invasive, it's not doing any harm to the natural environment around it. So, the national park lets it thrive, because it's now a cultural resource. It helps tell the story of this amazing place, all the different versions that this place has been. I was very happy to see that story was protected while also adding an extra touch of unexpected beauty to an already beautiful place.


Doug Still: Bear LeVangie is the co-founder of the Women's Tree Climbing Workshop based in Vermont, which has been taught by women for women since 2009. It's an inspirational and much needed professional program. You'd never see me up there with ropes, and harness, and chainsaw. What I didn't know, however, was that when pruning the crown of an evergreen tree, an arborist might be on the lookout to sustainably harvest a Christmas tree.

Bear LeVangie: Hello, dedicated listeners of This Old Tree Podcast. My name is Bear LeVangie, cofounder, lead instructor, and executive director of the Women's Tree Climbing Workshop. First and foremost, thank you, Doug, for providing this wonderful piece of tree documentary for the world. And secondly, for inviting me to share a story about a tree that's impacted my life.

I contemplated a while about which tree I would speak about, because to share only one story about the standing people is too arduous. They've all impacted me and that is why I've really dedicated my life to arboriculture. However, after recognizing that this month is the month of winter solstice, I had a moment of clarity. This magic month of December is all about celebrating trees. So, whether it is a gift of piece from one nation to another, a family tradition of picking out one special tree from a Christmas tree farm or walking into the woods to cut and drag a tree home, we all recognize the beauty and charisma that a tree brings to our holiday season. This year, I hope to be blessed with a codominant lead from a tree that needs pruning. It shall between 4 feet and 6 feet tall and only two and a half feet in canopy circumference to fit in the small corner of the kitchen dining room area.

So, why is this month magical? Well, for me, it's easy. Besides Arbor Day, this tree-centered month celebrates rituals. From the moment you bring the tree into your abode, you are encouraging the smell of freshly cut evergreen to walk through your home. Once you cut off the base and get it into the stand, the debate of whether to hydrate it with water or ginger ale might start. While decorating, you still need to choose between strands of white or rainbow-colored bulbs, which ornaments come out of the box, and whose days, and then who gets to live where on the tree, and how deep into the canopy it must go. Then, when you go to bed, you need to decide, will the tree go dark or will continue to glow in all of its glory?

In the next coming weeks, the celebration continues with more watering and then placing all the lovely wrap gifts under it. Finally, after culmination of post-holiday, which day is the exact moment to dethrone your green and now shedding hero? Please remember to honor your tree for giving its life to your celebration and to share your love of tree magic by recycling or composting your evergreen hero.

To all of you that celebrate, Happy Winter Solstice, Happy Kwanza, Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas. May the tree you choose bring you joy and peace for you and your family.


Doug Still: We heard about birds from Andy, and birds also make their way into this story from Walt Warriner in Hawaii. Walt has served with just about every professional tree society you can think of. From the International society of Arboriculture to Street Tree Seminar, Inc., the Society of Municipal Arborists, SMA, Municipal Forestry Institute, The National Urban and Community Forest Advisory Council, you get the picture. In this story from a rainforest, you can just hear the sound of the rain in the background.

Walt Warriner: Hi, my name is Walt Warriner. I'm a consulting urban forester. I work primarily in California but I grew up in Hawaii and that's where I first became inspired to become an urban forester and work with nature. Where I live in a little place called Kahalu'u, it's up against the Ko'olau Mountains. And across the stream, right out my back door, is pretty much a rainforest. But there is specifically one stand of trees that are Java plum trees. And they've all grown together and they've become one gigantic organism. The trees stand about 85 feet tall. They have a canopy spread or a total spread of probably 100 feet plus. At the base of the trees, they're surrounded by California grass. It's a tall grass that gets to be about 6 feet, 7 feet tall. It's very thick grass. There's also another plant called the shampoo ginger. It's a ginger plant. It's very aggressive and it just takes over everything.

Then, in the canopy, the canopy itself is made up of probably 35%, 40% of split leaf monstera. That's a philodendron. A lot of times, people use it as a house plant. But when it's planted and growing in the wild, it will creep up a tree and it will eventually take over the entire tree. The taller the vine grows up to the higher parts of the tree, the larger the leaves get. Now, this monstera is exceptionally attractive because it's variegated. So, it's green and yellow and it's always putting on a show at some time of the year or another.

Another thing about this tree is there's probably, I don't know, 50, 70, 80, 100 birds that live in this tree. See them flying in and out all the time. It's quite the busy tree, especially since the surrounding area, some of the trees have been cut down, and you can see the birds flying around and now they've started to make their home in the big java plum across the stream.

But it was this tree that I look at all the time that reminds me of why I do what I do and why I love trees, because trees can do anything. This guy here just keeps growing and growing. It's taking on tons of weight with this monstera, but it doesn't care and it keeps growing. So, that's my story and I'm sticking to it, the big java plummer.


Doug Still: For our last story, we returned to Rhode Island to hear the resonant voice of Mike Maino, a personality on local radio station, WCRI, and also as a leader in the barbershop music world. You can hear him sing as a bass with a Narragansett Bay Chorus or his current quartet, Trade Secret, what better way to end our episode than with a family tree hug.

Mike Maino: Hello, everyone. I'm Mike Maino. And I'd like to tell you a story that happened about 35 years ago. This is not just a great memory for me, but also for my son, Justin, who's now in his early 40s. We lived in the village of Lime Rock, Rhode Island, part of the town of Lincoln with almost 100 acres of woodlands behind us. As I recall, I was out cutting the grass when he and a couple of friends came out of the woods calling to me, "Dad, dad." He said, "You have to come and see this gigantic tree we discovered." They were convinced no one else had ever seen this tree but them. "It's the biggest tree in the world," they exclaimed. Well, off we went.

No path. I just followed them proudly thinking, "I'll have to pretend to be excited when we get there." Little did I know that I didn't have to pretend, because there it was. In the middle of the woods, the largest tree I had ever seen. It was beautiful, awe inspiring. Fantastic.

 Just for the fun of it, we decided to join hands and see if we could circle this enormous trunk. Sure enough, three young boys and myself holding hands, just barely got our arms around it. We'd take friends there often to see it and it always impressed everyone. I'm not sure if it's still there, but I do know that it'll always be there in our memory.


Doug Still: I'm going to end it there. I'm Doug Still and thank you for listening to this special episode of This Old Tree. Thank you, Tom, Katie, Jean, Andy, Thomas, Bear, Walt, and Mike for contributing their tree stories. Listeners, if you would like to submit a three-minute tree story short about an important tree in your life, you can record it on the voice memo app on your phone and email it to me. I would love to hear from you.

I'm taking a short break during the holiday season, but please tune in for the next episode on January 12th. Don't forget to hit the subscribe button on your podcast app, and that way we're easy to find the next time you want to listen. You can get transcriptions, links, and information about all our guests in the show notes. You can see photos and other related tree stuff, if you follow This Old Tree on Facebook, Instagram, or Mastodon. Here's arborist and songwriter, Dee Lee, to take us out. See you next time.

[This Old Tree theme]

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