2016-04-07 / Front Page

Newport Arboretum Week: The Story and Glory of Trees

By Betsy Sherman Walker


The Fernleaf beech at the Newport Art Museum, nearing 180 years in age, will be removed later this spring. Before that happens, the museum is staging a "First Light Funeral," to celebrate the tree's life, on Thursday, April 14, from 7 – 9 p.m. The send-off will be punctuated by New Orleans funeral-style jazz, ballet, eulogies, and refreshments. The festive evening coincides with the museum’s Art After Dark. 
(Photo by Jack Kelly) The Fernleaf beech at the Newport Art Museum, nearing 180 years in age, will be removed later this spring. Before that happens, the museum is staging a "First Light Funeral," to celebrate the tree's life, on Thursday, April 14, from 7 – 9 p.m. The send-off will be punctuated by New Orleans funeral-style jazz, ballet, eulogies, and refreshments. The festive evening coincides with the museum’s Art After Dark. (Photo by Jack Kelly) You can read a tree. If you know what to look for, big trees are like history lessons, with scars and Mother Nature’s tattoos up and down their immense trunks, all with their own stories to tell. You can almost see how they grew, emerging out of the ground in decades of twists and turns, undulating up towards open sky and sunlight.

Aquidneck Islanders are passionate about trees. Almost everyone has a beloved tree story to tell. And many of those who do have become tree activists: engaged advocates who honor the past and the Gilded Age roots (literally and figuratively) of our many magnificent specimens; but more importantly, they are ardent visionaries, striking a delicate and necessary balance of science and poetry. They know well the language of treespeak; they use such phrases as urban forest, heritage horticulture, sylviculture, living museum, tree canopy loss; Newport’s Gilded Age Forest .

The city’s many magnificent trees, large and small, young and old, will be celebrated during Newport Arboretum Week, which will begin on Earth Day on Friday, April 22 and run through National Arbor Day, a week later on April 29.

Jennifer Garlick, Newport Arboretum Program Manager, says that the goal is to raise awareness and to ensure that

Newport’s once legendary urban jungle gets a second chance at a healthy, thriving future. “Tree awareness is the overall goal,” she says. “And continuing the life of the trees” is key.

When life starts anew, it’s time to celebrate. Newport Arboretum Week will be a showcase, not only for the trees on the island, but for the numerous dedicated individuals whose mission is to preserve, protect, and repopulate the legacy of Newport’s trees. The inaugural event on Friday, April 22, at the Pell Bridge offramp on Connell Highway will be both a milestone and incubator event. To honor the city’s 25th anniversary of Newport’s Tree City USA designation and as part of the third annual Daffodil Days festival, a young urban forest will be planted among the daffodils, from elms (Princeton American), lindens (Redmond American), to sugar maples, and scarlet oaks. Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano and the state Earth Day delegation will officiate among the daffodils. Nearly 30 new members will be added to all of the city’s many acred wood, says Tree Warden

Scott Wheeler. This past fall Newport scored a horticultural hat trick when it became the first city in the U.S. to have three officially credited arboreta: the Newport Arboretum (the popular face of the Newport Tree Society), the Newport Mansions Arboretum (encompassing the vast tree holdings of the Preservation Society of Newport County), and the Arboretum at Salve Regina University.

Two events on Thursday, April 14, will give a week’s head start to the weeklong tree gala. One is the Lighting of the Beeches, for which the Newport Arboretum has issued an invitation to local residents with beech trees in their own yard, asking that they light them up. Garlick, who is a big fan as well of the efforts to promote the public-private tree communion, says that the idea was to cast “a poignant light on the need to revitalize the city’s urban forest that is suffering significant losses in its population of century-plus old trees.” Their goal is to light up 100 of Newport’s beeches cross the city from April 14-29.

The second is a tree funeral, with enough pomp and circumstance to satisfy a king.

Having far outlived its sylvan siblings (Andrew Jackson was president the year it took root, in 1836), the majestic Fernleaf beech tree that has graced and shaded the lawn where the Newport Art Museum has made its home for more than a century has finally succumbed to old age, and is scheduled for removal later this spring. The tree predates the building, which was built as a summer home for the Griswold family in 1864. The museum has planned a celebratory sendoff, The First Light Funeral for its celebrity beech, from 7-9 p.m., punctuated by New Orleans funeral-style jazz, ballet, eulogies, and refreshments.

Newport Arboretum Week will culminate on Friday, April 29 at the Arbor Day celebration at the Rhode Island State House in Providence. The R.I. Tree Council and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management will be there to honor the City by the Sea’s tree organizers on a variety of levels: marking the 25th anniversary of when it received its Tree City USA tiara; for this year’s arboreta trifecta; and for the launch of the Newport Arboretum’s statewide tree-mapping project, RhodyTrees.org.

There is still work to be done in the efforts to revitalize Newport’s treescapes, but the current sense of accomplishment is a significant departure from the gloom and doom that persisted as recently as five years ago. At the time, a Tree and Open Space Commission report dated 2011 sounded like a death knell: “Many of these [Gilded Age] specimens are now more than a century old; they are into old-age decline … Buildings, walkways and driveways,” it added, “are squeezing into the canopy and root spaces of these large trees.”

Later that same year an article in the Science section of The New York Times painted an equally dismal scenario. “[Newport’s] trees are in trouble,” it said. “Planted more or less all at once about 120 years ago, they are aging all at once now, a process hastened by insect and fungus infestations they can no longer fight off … [While] Bellevue Avenue looks almost as elegant as ever,” the reporter wrote, “here and there stands a skeleton tree, bereft of leaves, or a stump perhaps five feet across, all that remains of a vanished giant.”

Everybody has a story about a tree. A tree climbed; a tree fallen from; a tree planted; a tree nurtured. A tree with a swing or a treehouse; a tree that defines a yard, a time in one’s life; a familiar tree enjoyed from afar; a tree to escape to; a tree loved. Big trees, little trees, flowering in the spring and dropping their leaves in the fall. Is there a poem as lovely?

Again, the balance of science and poetry. Five years later, Newporters have plenty of chances to honor the legacy of the island’s many trees, now gone, and to look forward to the others that will, in time, take their place.

Tree Tours & Talks

Friends of Ballard Park is hosting a guided tree hike on Saturday, April 16, at 2 p.m. Staff will lead visitors on an information, tour of the 13-acre wood, discussing the site’s history and its trees. Maples abound, but there are also a host of elm, oak, cherry, autumn olive, and “a nice grove” of quaking aspen. Other tree events will be held around town, from Redwood and Newport libraries to tree tours given by the arboreta at Salve Regina and at Preservation Society venues. For a complete schedule, go to newportarboretumweek.org.

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