Writing Trees at Risk

When my oldest daughter, now a college graduate, was a baby, I used to push her in a stroller around our neighborhood with our dog in tow. You don’t move very fast pushing a stroller and walking a dog at the same time, and I soon noticed, meandering up the sidewalk of our busy Worcester thoroughfare, that about every third street tree was ailing in some way—cracked limbs, gouged trunks, dying foliage.

I’d been a journalist, first in pubic radio and then in print, for more than a decade, focused on writing about the environment. My casual observation about our street trees developed into a magazine article. While doing the research, I met John Trexler, then executive director of the Worcester County Horticultural Society and mastermind behind the stunning Tower Hill Botanic Garden in West Boylston. We soon teamed up to produce an updated version of Arabella Tucker’s 1894 book, Trees of Worcester, in honor of the book’s centennial and the Horticultural Society’s 150th anniversary in 1994.

We never made the deadline. What began as a straightforward project mushroomed into a six-year detective’s hunt for the story behind Worcester’s urban landscape. With assistance from many wonderful reference librarians and other helpful sources, I conducted dozens of interviews and combed through hundreds of primary and secondary sources in the Worcester Public Library, American Antiquarian Society, and elsewhere—and have the probable distinction of being the only person who has ever read every single report ever written by the various permutations of the Worcester Parks Commission. And enjoyed them.

When I finished the book, John and I sat in his office overlooking Tower Hill, then under the first phases of construction, and looked at each other. “Now what?” I asked. That conversation prompted the creation of an Urban Tree Task Force, which in turn led to the hiring of Worcester’s first urban forester. Nearly a decade later, Trees at Risk was cited by Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray and Congressman Jim McGovern as key evidence when they launched their public-private initiative to replant Worcester’s trees lost to the ALB infestation.

Although the narrative in Trees at Risk ends before the beetles were discovered, the story of Worcester’s urban forest is both illustrative and predictive—we neglect our trees at our peril. Writing this book was a seemingly endless struggle and a joy. Knowing that it has helped to promote stewardship of our city’s urban forest is a great reward. I hope the book will inspire other communities to do the same.

Evelyn Herwitz

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