“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”
Henry David Thoreau
You may think you’ve known tree lovers, but most pale compared to this University of Georgia team. Sarah Thompson (BS ’05; MS ’07) and horticulture professor, Tim Smalley, spent the last year locating and documenting Georgia’s most significant trees.
Academic research seldom captures the public imagination. Yet Sarah Thompson and Tim Smalley’s book project, Georgia’s Heritage of Trees, did just that. The team’s book is tentatively scheduled for release in fall 2008.
Thompson and Smalley’s investigation began with the Georgia Forest Landmarks and Historic Tree Register in February 2006. It expanded when they sought the input of extension agents, master gardeners and the Garden Club of Georgia to contribute their knowledge of trees. Their stories proved evocative, historically important or simply unusual. The team’s Web-based project, www.uga.edu/significanttreesofgeorgia, posted in April of last year, allowing online nominations. From there the project truly sprouted.
“The public response was stirring,” says Thompson. “And everyone we met has been incredibly nice.” The nominated trees were sometimes landmarks at risk of being lost. “People know exactly where they are,” Thompson adds, “but the information is vague or resides with only a few.” She describes how nominees met the team to direct them to tree sites and describe each tree's historical significance.
Using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to pinpoint tree locations, the team covered 5,000 miles in seven months beginning in June 2006. At the end of their quest, the studentprofessor team had mapped, photographed and measured more than 200 nominated trees. Approximately 300 nominators participated in the project, and quite a few were duplicate nominees.
Thompson and Smalley are not the only researchers desiring to preserve significant trees.
There are other programs, Smalley says, citing Noble Trees of South Carolina, a program at Virginia State, and the Remarkable Trees series.
For years Smalley, an unabashed, yet seasoned tree lover, had the idea of recording unique trees while interweaving their histories. While conducting research on ornamental plants and leading garden tours throughout Europe and the United States, he made notes on memorable trees. On a visit to the Augusta National Golf Course, Smalley experienced a special treat normally reserved for professional golfers. He was permitted to drive a golf cart down the magnolia allée (often a feature of formal gardens). “It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck,” Smalley remembers.
When Sarah Thompson, then an undergraduate, went on a study abroad trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, she joined Smalley’s student group on the Royal Mile. The students walked past Greyfriar’s Kirkyard Cemetery and the locked gates of Dunbar’s Close, site of a re-creation of a 17th century garden. One by one the students peeled off, Smalley says, to enjoy other pursuits. Only Thompson remained at the end of the walk, still taking notes.
“She was inquisitive, tenacious, articulate and intelligent,” Smalley says.
The result of the research project is more than an artistic or even scientific record of beautiful images. During their travels, the two researchers came to realize the connection people hold with trees. Thompson asks, “How do you explain when people walk up to a tree and gasp, their eyes wide with amazement?” She says she gasped at the first glimpse of many trees, including the Majestic Oak in Savannah.
“There is a great respect and awe for trees,” Smalley says. Trees are reservoirs of emotion. Some trees, he says, evoke amazement. Others evoke memories, and even sadness, such as the Tifton Magnolia. Once a proud centerpiece of a Tifton, Georgia park, Smalley describes how the landmark magnolia tree was burned to the ground and is now a charred remnant of the giant it once was.
The book documents the often poignant stories, histories and aweinspiring qualities attached to these remarkable trees as well as Georgian history. Ultimately, the researchers hope their creative project will educate the citizens of Georgia about the historic trees in their communities and encourage others to protect these significant trees.
With graduation on the horizon, Thompson has reluctantly halted her collection of trees for inclusion in their research. Smalley, she assures, continues the journey.
For further reading To glimpse the gardens along the Royal Mile
For more information on The Tree that Owns Itself
The tree that owns itself is colorfully described as Athens’ oldest living property owner. The oak’s exact age, like its history, is imprecise, but Athenian’s affections for the white oak are fact. In 1890, an Athens newspaper related how Colonel William H. Jackson devised a will to protect the tree sometime between 1820 and 1832, when the tree was considered the largest in Athens. Jackson reportedly deeded the 64 square feet of land surrounding it to the tree itself. The deed itself disappeared but the story of the oak and its successor remain.
The original tree died decades ago, but Athenians planted a seedling from one of its acorns. The tree that now grows near the intersection of Finley and Dearing Streets is sometimes called the Son of the Tree That Owns Itself. It’s considered in the care of municipal authorities and the Athens’ Junior Ladies Garden Club is known as its advocate.
The Nation’s Oldest Trees
Ordinary cedars and firs have a similar lifespan to a human. These trees are much longer lived than the more decorative dogwoods, willows and cottonwoods. Yet the world’s oldest documented trees, by contrast, can live as long as 5,000 years. There are baldy cypress trees on Georgia’s Lewis Island that reach 6 to 7 feet in diameter. The baldy cypress can live 1,000 to1,300 years, which means some of these cypresses stood long before Europeans arrived in North America.