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Friends of Trees

March 20, 2012

Fact number one about the Black Hawthorne tree: it has thorns.

This past weekend I volunteered with the Friends of Trees organization and helped plant 140 trees in the north-east part of Portland. Okay, my group was only responsible for nine trees. Two of which were on our property. And if you must know, the truth is I only volunteered because the program required it. And Ann wasn’t available.

So there we were, Eva and I, at the meeting place by 8:15 on a cold Saturday morning. We had volunteered the pickup’s services – only to find out the trees were too tall for our canopy (two days before we’d called to ask this specific question but received no response). They thanked us for coming and directed us to a waiting area.

Then nothing proceeded to happen for forty-five minutes. There was a continental breakfast, and if I’d been able to eat white flour or processed sugar I would definitely have enjoyed the pastries and bagels. Eva had one of each. I got a little grumpy.

But in the meantime there was a lot to see. The waiting area was an old bowling alley; all the lanes had been removed and it was in the process of being built into a bike park. It was still in the stud and plywood phase, but made me want to jump on one of the spare BMXs lying around and try a trick or two. It was huge; twenty people could’ve biked safely together. There were a number of logs stacked against the back wall, some partially milled. One stack of milled sections lay nearby.

The magic time arrived, or they got organized. Group D met at our table. Our leader – Chris – had a map and addresses of the houses we were visiting. In order. I must admit I peeked to see when our trees were being planted. I was planning our escape.

We were second. The first house was just a couple of blocks away. We rushed home to get Eva’s forgotten gloves and met our party at the house. Nine trees poked out of a white pickup, and one had thorns on it. Hope that’s not mine. Meanwhile, difficulty number one had arisen: the hole hadn’t been dug. This might not seem like a big deal, but the question was: where should we dig the hole?

Fact number two about Black Hawthorne: it’s one of the legally acceptable trees to plant in Portland.

For every tree Friends of Trees plants between the curb and the sidewalk in Portland, they have to oversee this process: first the utility companies are called to mark gas and water lines. Then a city forester marks acceptable planting spots. A crew from the Correctional Facility shows up and digs the holes. Finally the Friends of Trees volunteers show up with trees (which the owners have selected) and plant them.

The owner came out and we agreed on a spot. Nobody minded digging the hole. The owner – suffering from cerebral palsy and arthritis  – watched and took a lively part in the conversation. Ann also showed up. She and Eva huddled together for a few minutes, then left. They were headed to an art project happening at her school.

Our house was next – just down the street. This was my plan: I’d plant our trees and call it good, and spend a quiet hour writing before the girls got home. But I fell into a conversation about jam and it wasn’t finished by the time our trees were planted.

At the next house difficulty number two arose. This person had ordered different trees but hadn’t specified which tree went in which hole.  And nobody was home. We talked jam while Chris talked on his cell phone. Eventually he was able to get an answer: they didn’t care.

The next house was on a busier street. As we dug and dirtied ourselves cars honked and folk cheered. I smiled. I even went along to the fifth house after the group had started fraying.

There we ran into difficulty number three: the hole was in the wrong place. Fortunately the homeowner came out and agreed wholeheartedly with Chris’s solution. He helped fill in the old hole. His wife and son watched from the warmth of their house.

So it ended up that I arrived home after the girls and in an earthy mood. I rousted them outside. We spent the afternoon planting bamboo starts and weeding and mowing. At one point I had to run in to eat a snack. That was when I noticed them talking to our neighbor – the one we don’t know very well – about the tree.

Fact number three about Black Hawthorne: there’s one growing in our yard.

It’s at the edge of our property, close to where he parks his Cherokee. I was afraid he wouldn’t be pleased about the thorns. The truth was, I questioned it the moment I saw them. I didn’t know it had thorns. Coming from Hawaii I didn’t know a Hawthorne from a Walnut or a Birch from a Beech. And though in the years to come it might deter the questionable neighborhood kids with a few flat tires, I don’t want to get poked either.

But the neighbor was happy with the tree and had been inquiring about the program. How about that? We love trees. Portland has the fastest growing green space in America.

If you were to watch from above – in fast-forward – as if it were a simulator, Friends of Trees would be the ants taking stones away from the hill instead of stacking them up. They’re straining the city’s budget with clogged gutters and buckled sidewalks and sewer lines in the name of nature and clean air. And I love them for it.

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