Tree-planting is the gift that keeps on giving 

Published 5:55 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2022

When you get to be a certain age, there’s a natural temptation to think it’s too late to plant trees. Of course, it never is. It’s just a bit late to think you might see it grow to maturity.

But that shouldn’t matter. Planting a tree is one of life’s most optimistic activities, not because we will see it mature, but because somebody will.

I’ve always thought that the late Grace Keen’s greatest gift to Isle of Wight County was her dogged insistence that the county plant trees wherever it could. The crepe myrtles that define the median between Smithfield and Benn’s Church are the result of her tenacity, as is the memorial park in Smithfield near the old Smithfield High School football field.

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Today, another tree-planting effort is underway. The Windsor Castle Park Foundation is coordinating the planting of longleaf pines, the tree that played a huge role in building Colonial America.

Trees have been on my mind a lot recently because we had to take down a large oak that has shaded the backyard for decades, and oh, did it hurt to do so.

When Anne and I bought the old farmhouse that we still occupy in the early 1970s, one of the attractions for us was the trees. There were seven ancient red oaks scattered about the yard as well as a magnificently large dogwood.

All the oaks had seen better days. Hurricane Hazel had plowed through Isle of Wight County in 1953 and devastated the grove, taking all but the seven trees that were still standing when we came along. The storm damaged those trees as well, knocking the tops out of some and ripping limbs from others.

Thus, we knew we were inheriting a sickly, though impressive, oak grove that had been in place when the Bergen family built the house not long after the Civil War. Sickly or not, they were beautiful. Collecting and disposing of leaves each fall was a challenge, but we were young, and our children loved playing in the leaves when they were raked into piles.

Since then, all seven oaks have been toppled by storms. The first and largest was felled during a thunderstorm the summer after we moved in. It rattled every window in the house when it fell.

Then, one by one, the others succumbed, the final one during Hurricane Isabel.

And last year, the dogwood, with all but one limb dead, also fell.

But back to the recent tree removal. This was a much younger oak tree, one that we planted to replace the earliest victim after we moved here. The tree was badly diseased and was too close to the house.

Being young and foolish 45 years ago, I had planted the tree where we thought it would quickly shade the east side of the house. It did, but all too well. It was far too close, and when it began dying, it became a serious threat to the house itself.

So, the tree had to go. Josh Rice, a county tree removal specialist, took it down. (Actually, he was the third person we called, but the only one who would tackle removing the tree, which had large limbs hanging over our bedroom. His crew took it down without a hiccup.)

It’s sad to see any tree go, but this one was particularly important because of the shade it has provided for family reunions and other events for many years.

We do have other oaks in the yard — four by count — a couple of reds, a white and a willow oak. All came up naturally and happened to be in good locations, so we nurtured and left them. A couple of nice young dogwoods are replacing the old giant that died, and numerous red cedars provide wind breaks and abundant bird habitat.

Rounding out the tree inventory are pines. Henry Crook, who bought the house and farm back in the 1950s and brought his family to live here, planted a row of tiny saplings along the front edge of the yard. He planted another row along the north edge of the yard. Our daughter Beth planted more pine trees as a 4-H project and they, together with the earlier trees, form a pine grove in one corner of the yard. Thus, the old farmyard hasn’t been stripped of trees. It’s just supporting a new generation and a somewhat different mix.

We will, undoubtedly, plant another tree, knowing full well it will be some future family that sits under its shade. That’s the way with trees. We pass them down, generation to generation, and should happily do so.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is