Between the Rows: Appreciating beauty, benefits of trees

  • Arial view of the urban forest, better known as Central Park in New York City. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Pat Leuchtman and her husband visited there. We paid attention to the trees along the paths, many of which were helpfully labeled. FOR THE RECORDER/Pat Leuchtman

  • Beatrix Farrand’s park-like arrangement of trees in a square surrounded by Princeton University’s Gothic buildings. Farrand created the landscaping plan beginning in 1912 and did not leave the job to others until 1934. FOR THE RECORDER/Pat Leuchtman

For The Recorder
Friday, December 08, 2017

Here in New England we can take trees for granted. Trees line our streets, our roads and our highways. We do not have to work hard to find a woodland that invites us to stroll and enjoy a period of cool tranquility. The Japanese even have a word, Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” for the practice of taking a walk in the woods for the health benefits it brings.

And yet, many of us are not familiar with the names of many trees, or the particular benefits any of them might give. When I lived in Heath, I was surrounded by trees but beyond being able to identify a maple, oak or beech tree; I was at a loss. Now that I live in town, and am thinking about what trees could be added to my street, I have been paying attention to the specific forms of trees and leaves, and the benefits and needs of any particular tree species.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my husband and I visited friends in New York City. That Sunday in the city was sunny and breezy, and the crowds that we joined in Central Park were taking full advantage. People were strolling through this veritable forest and I am sure we were all gaining health benefits as we took pictures, took rides in horse drawn or bicycle cabs, or queued up for a rowboat to paddle around the tranquil lake. We did pay attention to the trees along the paths, many of which were helpfully labeled. I took particular note of an ancient beech tree with unique leaves.

There are other parks throughout the New York boroughs and it seems the essential element of any park is always a grove of trees. We can see that ourselves in the small Energy Park right in the center of Greenfield or the larger woodland of Highland Park in Millers Falls.

On Monday, my brother and his wife took us for a tour of Princeton University, where Beatrix Farrand created the landscaping plan beginning in 1912 and did not leave the job to others until 1934. It was a park-like aspect that she wanted to create because she said, “We all know that education is by no means a mere matter of books, and the aesthetic environment contributes as much to growth as facts assembled from a printed page.”

Farrand may have had a special soft spot for Princeton because it was there in January of 1913 that she met her husband Max Farrand, the distinguished visiting professor of history. I heard no stories of any romances she might have had until she met Farrand, but when Max’s sister-in-law heard rumors of a romance, she took herself to the campus and watched the “bush woman” directing her workers. Having made her observations, she declared that “if that woman really wants Max, she’ll get him!” Readers, she married him before December was done.

Farrand was devoted to landscape gardening beginning in 1872 when she was only 20. She did study under the tutelage of Charles Sprague Sargent, founder of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, and was the sole female among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects formed in 1899.

She might not have called herself a feminist, but when she was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Daily Tribune in 1900, her response to what must have been an obnoxious question about her work rates was, “I have put myself through the same training and I look for the same rewards.” We women are still fighting that particular battle, but Farrand was there before us.

Over the course of her career, Farrand designed more than 100 gardens including estate gardens like Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., which I visited earlier this year, as well as the White House, Yale University and many estate gardens in Maine. More locally, she designed the tree lined approach to The Mount which was built by her aunt, the novelist Edith Wharton, in 1901.

I will never plan a landscape or planting of trees on such a large scale, but on our urban plot of land, I have new appreciation of the shade of a giant sycamore that was probably planted when the house was built around 1925. Later, someone planted the deliciously fragrant Japanese lilac tree and I have the borrowed shade from my neighbor’s maple and oak trees. I have added two clumps of river birch, a small weeping cherry tree and an assortment of native shrubs like viburnams because they please my eye, but I have been particularly mindful of their benefits to the insects and birds that come to my garden.

Now, when I think about what trees could be beneficial if added to our street, I think about redbuds that bloom so beautifully in the spring, or a stately red maple, or maybe a hawthorn with its bright red berries in the fall.

When I drive by the beautiful new John Zon Community Center on Pleasant Street, I wonder what trees will be planted there. Right now, the Center grounds look austere. Like any building, it needs trees and other plants to create a welcoming and comfortable presence. Will there be an oak that will support 500 species of insects and birds and provide shady grandeur? Will there be majestic tulip poplars? Will there be red maples?

Until spring, I’ll be dreaming of the new kinds of trees that may come into my neighborhood and the pleasure they will bring.

Pat Leuchtman had written and gardened since 1980. She lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her website: www.commonweeder.com