My Turn: Speaking for the trees

  • The Buttonball Tree in Sunderland on North Main Street dwarfs other full grown trees around it. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Published: 4/14/2021 4:40:09 PM

Trees have been in the news a lot recently. It looks like a crisis was averted in Sunderland when citizens came to the rescue of the beloved 400-year-old Buttonball Tree. It appears news of his death was greatly exaggerated. But tree huggers, like me, want to be sure the historic creature, which has been a witness to human history, is forever protected and preserved.

You can learn a lot about us humans from looking at a tree. Our mutual existence is intertwined.

I recently visited Childs Park in Northampton. My mission was to learn about the overall health of our trees and therefore our own health.

On a cold and damp morning, Susan Lofthouse and Alicia Purdy, founding board members from Tree Northampton, and two of the most charitable volunteers you will ever find, were my guides.

I point to a large hemlock tree near Woodlawn Avenue, a favorite of mine, and asked Alicia, a certified arborist, how it is doing. I love the hemlock trees in my own backyard. So much so, that I named one 60-foot tree “Henry,” after Hank Aaron.

“Many hemlocks are doomed,” Alicia tells me. She points to the tree’s branches and shows me little cotton-ball looking specs that are hemlock wooly adelgid. When I returned home that evening, I checked Henry, and sure enough, the small insects are clinging to Henry’s needles, too, sucking sap from his twigs. If I do not get him help, Henry, like the tree at Childs Park, will ultimately die.

Warmer winters and climate change are helping these critters, and many others, thrive. The bugs are just one of the many challenges facing Lofthouse and Purdy and their fellow Tree Northampton volunteers, who since 2013, have been on the front lines, defending and caring for trees all around the city.

To put it in tree terms, the nonprofit is the vascular system and supporting tissue that sustains a robust plant body that is Northampton’s tree program. Their volunteers work in close collaboration with the city’s Urban Forestry Commission and Tree Warden Richard Parasiliti Jr., the state’s 2019 Tree Warden of the Year.

A big part of the effort is encouraging homeowners to plant trees in their own yards. Tips and advice are free. Their work includes getting the word out about preventing damage to trees. For example, before pruning a tree, it’s a good idea to understand individual species and cultivars, their characteristics and physiology.

“Poor pruning can really damage trees,” says Susan. Another concern, Susan says, is “over mulching,” as she hands me a Tree Northampton brochure.

“Mulch volcanoes harm trees,” the brochure states. Unfortunately, some landscapers and property owners think piling up a tree with a cone of mulch looks good or helps the tree. In actuality, the practice traps moisture against the bark of a tree and invites disease and infestation. “Do you love your tree?” the brochure asks. “Then don’t kill it with kindness!”

Tree Northampton is a proactive group. They must be. If trees are not cared for, their condition can deteriorate to the point where there is no hope of saving them. They also plant new and more sustainable trees to bring back the city’s tree canopy that, like many cities, have suffered from years of neglect.

Despite the pandemic, Tree Northampton still managed to plant over 200 trees last year, well short of the city’s goal of 400 trees but a remarkable number, nonetheless. Tree Northampton hopes to get back on track this year and could use help with more volunteers and donations.

“We’ve had to be a bit more subdued this year, but we can’t wait to get back to it,” said Susan. “We live to have people plant trees with us.”

Later that morning, I crossed the Connecticut River and headed to a special refuge of mine — the system of trails that link together several conservation properties in the area of North Amherst and Shutesbury.

The rest of the day was spent on the Robert Frost Trail near Atkins Reservoir to check on the health of a large area of evergreens mixed with a spattering of red and black oak, maple and birch.

There too, I saw, instances of disease and weakened trees. My day was also spoiled by the thought that there’s a plan afloat to replace up to 190 acres of nearby trees with what would become the largest solar array system in Massachusetts.

“Going solar” to me, means on top of parking lots and garages, rooftops, or unused factories, of which we have plenty.

Proponents for the solar projects slated for five commercial solar projects on forest land owned by Cowls Inc., will tell you that the ground-mounted solar arrays will pay back the loss of forest with clean, renewable energy.

That may be true, but it seems disingenuous to me when money is involved. I would say that the value of our trees and local forests is priceless and much greater than the sum of stored carbon. Trees also help with water management, improve air quality for us, boost our mental health and are part of the very DNA that comes with living in New England.

That morning in Northampton, Alicia, Susan and I talk about how the trees can’t defend themselves. It takes all of us to be tree superheroes.

“We just want people to learn more about caring for our trees,” says Susan. “For every bit you learn about how special trees are and how important they are, the more you start to care about them.”

Mother Nature is calling us to care for her trees, and, in return, they will care for us.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column for the Gazette. He can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com. To learn more about Tree Northampton and to request a tree or to sign up to volunteer or donate, visit treenorthampton.org.


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