I’ve always been a tree admirer, lover, protector, kisser, crier. The first time I drank too much, I cried for hours about the Earth and its need for trees. Yet despite this fervor, I had never studied tree species alongside my geologist brother, never helped my father plant on our 10-acre field in our corn farm town that is so small it has no speed limit, never learned how to thin unnatural new-growth forests like my master-gardener mother so they’d be healthy and not choked with too many trees that grew all at once. Somehow I didn’t plant a tree until New Haven. I had never felt a need to curate nature back home, where there was so much of it.
I am a new intern for the Urban Resources Initiative, a program that partners with the city to help plant 10,000 trees in New Haven by 2015, the philosophy being that the planting of trees strengthens the community when members of the community plant them. This season, 10 of us, mostly School of Forestry & Environmental Studies students, will be working with a team of either high schoolers or ex-offenders.
Today I wake up at half past six. Once I reach the planting site, I meet the six high schoolers I’ll be working with for the next two months. I also meet my work partner, Gina Blankenship, an FES student who in the past worked for a company called Lumberjack, lived in South America, and hiked alone for months through the Minnesota wilderness as a tree surveyor. Each week, we’ll be teaching the high schoolers a lesson on urban forestry. Today we focus on how urban trees reduce crime rates, improve personal happiness (and mental health), strengthen relationships with neighbors, better air quality and respiratory health, bolster property values and save cities hundreds of thousands of dollars through storm-water management. I’m a little nervous that despite only learning how to plant trees last week, I’ll now be teaching it. It goes well though. At the end of each tree we stand around it and chant, “Trees need people, people need trees!” Gina and I both realize that it’s sappy, but also that it’s true.
We finish a beautiful hole, our third of the day, only to have a homeowner come out yelling that the American linden is supposed to go in front of the right corner of the house, not under the left where its growth would clearly be blocked by the beautiful tree in his front yard — he’d already had a tree there that had died. We needed to fill the hole and dig a new one. It’s worth noting here that URI trees are a free service for homeowners, paid for by the city, Yale and other donors. However, he becomes gracious and even tips us, once we, without so much as a complaint, dig an entirely new hole and plant the tree.
We learn how to pickax when a root mass is impassable. Roots can be wide, as wide as a big tree’s branches, and they’re also extremely strong, even once the tree has been removed and the central stump has been ground up by the city. This means that you can dig down a foot or so, and still hit a whole mess of roots. We try to wait at least three years after a tree has been taken out, so the roots can begin decomposing, but the three years have not always passed. I would much rather dig a hole through concrete or asphalt than a root system; you can take a sledgehammer or a pickax to those materials and they break up easily. You can take turns pickaxing a root system for an hour and have nothing but a swelling purple bruise on the ball of your hand and a few massive pieces of root you’ve removed to show for it.
It is so hot so that we all have layers of sweat between our hands and the rubber of our gloves, and all of our four planting sites have webs of unbreakable roots. My supervisor and I are digging deliriously when a beautiful woman in white pants and yellow sandals waltzes over from across the street balancing a jug of sweet iced tea and a tray of cups. We, with faces and clothes coated in dirt, fall at her feet in gratitude.
The fourth tree is unplantable, and we have to load it onto the truck at the end of the day. But by the end — after a freak thunderstorm hits, and we unload these 300-pound trees as well as the buckets and buckets of rock and root as we get continually more dripping wet and muddy — by the end, I walk into my suite smiling.
I realize I like waking up early, the solitary 30-minute walk to the URI office all the way at the top of Science Hill. I even decide to stop washing my work pants. I tell my suite mates that this was some pact I’d made with one of my coworkers, but really it seems a shame to wash the dirt off when the very next week I’ll always be sitting in a freshly dug hole, legs wedged between a wall of dirt and a tree we are pulling and twisting into perfect uprightness.
This day is admittedly particularly difficult, with two of our team members missing and a mess of roots several feet wide and hours of pickaxing strong. At the end of it, one of the high schoolers (we’ll call him Peter) says, “I hate trees.” I wonder if I am missing something. The thing is, the whole point of the program is that he’s supposed to love trees now. It’s been a hard day, but a good day, too. We planted three trees even with two of our team missing. We planted the third tree so quickly and smoothly that I felt we might’ve been an Olympic team of synchronized swimmers. Gina and I laugh, and tell him, “No, you don’t hate trees.” I’m a little worried that I’ve been too idealistic about the all-importance of having nature everywhere.
In the previous weekly Wednesday team meeting, we were informed that a third member of a team won’t be making it today, and maybe not for the rest of the season due to disciplinary issues. Today we are blessed with the addition of a high school student from another team now that we are down to two from our original five. We finish our trees early and walk over to a nearby park where we look at and talk about trees, the one all crooked and bent backwards, the one tapped for a maple sugar line, the one almost hiding the crouching deer.
We practice for next week, our last one, when the high schoolers will lead eighth-graders in tree planting, passing on the skills they’ve perfected to the New Haven community. Gina and I pretend to be clueless eighth-graders to practice. Remembering some of Peter’s complaints, Gina starts jokingly whining about how planting trees was hard and she didn’t want to do it anymore, and I cut in that I was bored and that I was hungry, and look at my nails! Peter smiles knowingly and tells us that you have to keep going even when you don’t want to, that you need to get the tree in the ground. I realize that he isn’t entirely humoring us. Despite the occasional tree-hating comment, he’d shown up every day and worked harder as the season went on, even though he was the youngest kid on the team and probably weighed about 80 pounds.
Peter’s tree is somehow the one that doesn’t get dropped in the hole straight, and so we all have to sit around it and pull and pull at the rope and burlap and wire basket, and tilt it, and shovel dirt in, and then the tree is too high, and still not straight, so we pull at it some more. It’s frustrating, but eventually there is a Cornelian dogwood in the ground. That afternoon we and the other high school crews go back to the office to reflect on the season and eat pizza. When the session leader asks Peter what he’s learned that season, he says, “Nothing.” I laugh. Maybe he really didn’t learn anything. But today he taught others how to plant, and then planted a tree on a street where most of the trees were dead or dying, a street where none of the houses had spigots or nice vegetable gardens. Maybe Peter is sometimes a tree hater, but that’s probably better than being a tree lover who doesn’t know what that means. He’s probably more impressive than someone who’s always taken trees for granted.