Rooted: Trees Give the City Its Soul
In a New South city known for tearing down buildings in the name of progress, we choose to keep our trees. And they give the city its soul
With a trunk diameter of more than 60 inches, this impressive water oak near the intersection of Randolph Road and Durham Drive is featured on The Queen’s Crown website and thought to be at least 150 years old.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOGAN CYRUS
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An old willow oak stands alone on the perimeter of a newly razed lot in South End. It’s taller than most of the other trees around. Its trunk, shooting up about 50 feet, is dotted with the scars of lost branches. It’s probably the oldest thing remaining on the street, and it looks slightly stressed out. Nearly half of its lush canopy is gone, unevenly hacked to make room for drooping power lines. It’s not perfect, but it’s still standing.
The buildings that stood here are gone, making way for new condos. Snapped window frames and cinder blocks, now crumbled to near dust, form harsh dunes in the sad space. Signs that read “Demolition Experts” drape a ratty chain-link fence that surrounds a construction claw powered by a machine with tank-like wheels. Someone could have started a family business here. A baby might have learned to walk here. Still the buildings came down. But the oak stands.
In Charlotte, our trees give us a sense of place. Like pickles on hot dogs in Chicago. Or music in Memphis. Some of our trees have been around for more than 150 years, longer than the buildings in our pop-up skyline and much longer than any of us.
This isn’t by accident. We coexist with trees in an urban forest that is the product of the careful planning of those who came before us—and the protection of those who still care. The system isn’t perfect. But we try. We try because the trees have become part of who we are. Charlotte’s national identity might be a blend of North meets South, with big banks and racecars sprinkled in. But our soul is in the trees.
Patrick George fights for the trees. He grew up in the Starmount neighborhood off South Boulevard at a time before much of anything had developed, before takeout Chinese joints and dry cleaners dominated strip malls. And well before the light rail.
When school let out in the afternoons, George explored the woods behind his house. A wooded area and Little Sugar Creek converged into the perfect place for a kid’s imagination. One day, when he was 12 years old, George ran out to find nothing there. His trees were gone. “I was devastated,” he says. “I ran home and asked my parents what happened, and my mom told me that the power company had gone in and chopped them all down,” he says, eyes cast on the floor, as if reflecting on old friends.
The street names in Starmount today—Wrentree Drive, Woodstream Drive, Oakstone Place, Mapleridge Drive—serve as reminders, like names carved into the planks of roadside picnic tables. Trees were here.
George is middle-aged now, bearded and balding only on top. Having protected and groomed our trees for more than 30 years, he’s the closest thing Charlotte has to the Lorax. If you didn’t know he was a tree guy, you might mistake him for a park ranger. Or a mountain climber. He’s fit and tan, and most days he wears olive-colored Patagonia-style pants, the kind with hooks and loops and all sorts of contraptions. Outside his office is a sculpture made of parts of a willow oak that reads “ROOTS.”
George is founder of Heartwood Tree Service, a local tree-care company with the tagline “Helping trees outlive people since 1979.” He’s probably spent more time with bark and branches than he’s spent with humans. And he knows more about trees than most people do. “I’ve been asked to sit on the panels and the councils and all that, but I prefer to fight,” he says. “I like to fight for the trees.”
In 2005, the city planned to chop down the cherry trees that line Little Sugar Creek in Freedom Park. The Yoshino cherries, some of the first to flower in spring, are icons of the historic park. Charlotteans were livid. After The Charlotte Observer ran a few stories about the local fury, George decided to get involved. A city official had considered the trees diseased and at the end of their lives, but George and his team climbed the cherries, shortened some of the horizontal limbs, then had a 200-pound man climb out on each to show they were safe for children. Now George is responsible for their upkeep. He won the fight.
Of course, he can’t save every tree. When a tree dies or becomes infected or when an insistent client requests it, he’ll cut one down. And when he does, he holds a funeral. “Trees have a history. Many of them have been there longer than the houses,” he says, “so when a homeowner wants me to cut one down—one that’s healthy—I always tell them, ‘Give it a year. Live with a tree through all four seasons; then decide.’”