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photo:John Whipple

Green Giants Moving On

By Darryl McGrath

The quiet loss of a huge white willow prompts an Arbor Day look at Albany’s old trees


It is possible that passersby in Albany’s Washington Park didn’t notice that the old white willow tree near the park’s eastern perimeter was gone until early spring. Although Albany city forester Tom Pfeiffer decreed that the tree be cut down back in February, the stark appearance of the stump along Old Union Way—the main road on the park’s eastern perimeter that connects Madison Avenue from the south and Henry Johnson Boulevard to the north—was more noticeable in the softened landscape that comes with March and April.

Pfeiffer and his staff tried to count the growth rings to determine the tree’s age, and got up to about 100 before the boundaries of the innermost rings, compressed by more than a century of growth, became difficult to distinguish. Pfeiffer believes the tree was among the earliest plantings in the park. Accumulated injuries from storms and the inevitable broken branches that occur over a tree’s life span—due in part to the weight of the foliage, which adds hundreds of pounds to the limbs—took their toll. By the time the forestry staff cut down the willow, it was more a trunk than a whole tree.

At 4½ feet at its widest point, the surface of the stump had the dimensions of a dining table that could have comfortably seated eight people. But even with that diameter, nearly 50 feet of height in its prime and roots reaching 40 feet from its trunk, the white willow was hardly one of the most spectacular trees in the city. There are many examples of older and grander trees on the park grounds. So how is it that a single tree, with great age but no particularly distinguished history, rates an obituary?

The answer speaks to the faith and foresight required to plant a tree in a city in the first place. If urban trees survive decades of poor soil, disruption to their root systems from construction projects, lightning strikes and ice storms, infestations of blight and bugs and outright neglect, they eventually die of old age. And the oldest trees of Washington Park, which are among the all-too-rare urban trees to be lovingly tended and pampered, are finally beginning to go.

Pfeiffer cites a 100-foot English elm that succumbed to Dutch elm disease early last year, and an enormous European beech near the Lakehouse, which he describes as “a very serious loss—you couldn’t put a dollar value on it—just a beautiful tree.”

So for Pfeiffer, the loss of the white willow is not only the death of a single tree, but a bittersweet reminder that he may be part of a generation of Albany residents to witness the death of many of the city’s oldest trees.

“They’re really struggling,” he says. And although he can put a tree on a kind of life support for a few seasons, he expects to taking down more of these ancient trees in the next few years, as they become so decayed that they pose a danger to the humans passing beneath them.

The magic of urban trees is more often found in their numbers than in their individual personalities. They are better noticed, loved and appreciated as the sum of their parts. The fact that Pfeiffer got only one inquiry about the disappearance of the white willow after it was cut down is, he says, a reflection of the attempt by landscape designers of a century ago to re-create a bit of wild forest in an urban setting, one in which the separate trees blended into a single impression of woodland.

“The intent might have been that you see the whole thing, not the individual,” he says. “The landscape was designed to separate people from the city.”

In keeping with this theory, urban trees most often make news when they disappear in groups, in one fell swoop. Witness Chicago in the spring of 1998, when an infestation of wood-chomping Asian longhorn beetles forced the city to enact an emergency plan to cut down and destroy hundreds of infected trees. Residents on several of Chicago’s oldest tree-lined boulevards left for work in the morning, only to come home in the afternoon to find nearly a half-century of curbside trees gone, and their street looking shockingly bare. Many people openly grieved for their trees, even as they understood that the city had no choice.

In Albany three years ago, the removal of Lark Street’s trees during a controversial renovation of the streetscape triggered sharp criticism from residents, even when city officials quickly planted new trees and justified the removal of the old ones as a matter of safety. (Main reasons cited: The older trees had grown so large that they obscured the street lights, had become entangled in overhead lines, were obstructing storefronts and even forcing some pedestrians to duck their heads as they walked on the sidewalks.)

The Lark Street trees ranged from 20 to 40 years old and included several species, including oaks, sycamores and maples.

“When we discussed the work involved, I knew what the consequences would be,” Pfeiffer recalled. “Because they were as tall as the surrounding buildings, the impact was quite significant.”

The effect of a group of urban trees can be so spectacular that sometimes people go to considerable effort to put them in place, not just take them down. The Washington Park Conservancy, a private, nonprofit group dedicated to preserving, protecting and promoting the park, is undertaking a long-term effort to restore elm trees along the Knox Street Mall in the park. Elms are believed to have been part of the original plantings there, says Sandra Baptie, the conservancy president, although most of those trees have fallen to Dutch elm disease. The conservancy is replacing the long-lost elms with newer varieties developed to be resistant to Dutch elm disease.

The elm evokes a bygone era; it was the tree that lined countless main streets in small towns in the United States in the 1800s and the early 1900s, before Dutch elm disease virtually wiped the elm off of the urban landscape. Full and stately, with slightly drooping branches, elms symbolize an Our Town nostalgia even for people who have never seen a full-grown specimen anywhere but in photographs.

If the elm project is successful, a future generation of Albany residents will be watching these new trees live out their natural lifespan.

Urban trees, Baptie says, symbolize a faith in the future, and that may be why planting a tree in memory of someone who has died has become such a popular custom. The idea that a tree will be enjoyed by unknown people in the future has an undeniable appeal.

“They are a reminder of a legacy,” Baptie says. “Trees outlive us, and we, I think, appreciate that.”

Fred Breglia is a big-tree hunter who has traveled all over the country seeking and measuring giant trees. He uses high-tech measuring equipment to get the height within two or three feet, but to be strictly accurate for entering a tree into a record book, he has to climb it.

“It’s pretty extreme, but rather fun, actually,” says Breglia, who is the president of the New York Old Growth Forest Association as well as director of horticulture and operations at the Landis Arboretum in Esperance.

He is 32 years old and wiry, but technique more than physical prowess comes into play when climbing giant trees. Breglia knows a tree hunter on the West Coast who is 50 years old and overweight, but who climbs 300-foot trees nevertheless and uses a crossbow to shoot the plumb line over the uppermost branch so that the tree can be accurately measured. It is wild and exhilarating work, Breglia says; when you’re up that high, the trunk and the branches are surprisingly slender, and the wind knocks the top of the tree around.

Breglia loves the trees of Washington Park. The largest silver linden in the region, and possibly the state, is in the southern section of the park near the Moses statue. It measures more than 6 feet in diameter, with a circumference of 20 feet.

“There are ginkgoes in there that are closer to 150 years; there are oaks that are definitely over 100 years old,” says Breglia.

The largest horse chestnut tree in New York state is also in Washington Park, recognized as a state champion by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. But because even ancient horse chestnut trees don’t reach tremendous proportions, people may not have the “Wow!” reaction to this particular champ—with a 3-foot-diameter trunk—that they will have to the silver linden, Breglia says. The silver linden, however, is not on the state registry, because it is a European species, and the registry counts only native species.

The silver linden is definitely a “Wow!” kind of tree, Breglia says. He believes that such giants produce that reaction not only because of their size, but because humans have an ancient and almost instinctive reaction to trees, which were the source of food, fuel and shelter for early cultures in Europe. Trace the retreat of the glaciers in the last Ice Age, and you’ll see that oak trees followed in their path, Breglia says. And as those oak trees spread, so did settlements.

Says Breglia, “We come from a culture where people depended on trees for life. A typical small tree is often overlooked, but if you show someone a really giant tree, it’s kind of like respecting your elders.”

As for the white willow that lived and died so anonymously in such plain view, the stump is being dug out of the ground now. Pfeiffer plans to plant some other trees in that section of the park, to replace several that have been recently lost. And the cycle will start all over again with these new trees, which will—with any luck—live 100 years or more.

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