The Giving Tree: Commemorative Plantings

December 4, 2014 by Kathleen Gaines

The greatest joy of the work I do is planting trees.

If you’re reading this blog, I doubt that I need to sell you on the ecological importance of trees. I don’t need to list all the ways that they make our lives and our planet better, you know that.

Over the past four years I have been honored to oversee the Parks Conservancy’s Commemorative Tree Planting Program in partnership with my colleague Phil Gruszka. I’ve planted trees to celebrate lives well lived and too early lost. I’ve been there for graduation ceremonies and for the exchange of vows. And what I have felt deeply from those experiences is the emotional significance trees can play in our lives -- the spiritual, mythological and folkloric meaning they carry.

And most importantly, the way they make us feel.

Family gathers in Schenley Park to celebrate the life of their loved one, Veda.

While the meanings and interpretations of a tree or tree planting are as varied as we are, they provoke a collective feeling of warmth.

Andrew with his tree planted in Highland Park to celebrate his college graduation. Usually when I meet a donor in the park to plant a tree we have never met face to face, but by the time we part I often get a hug. We are there to do good work and we are connected by the emotional significance of the moment and the change it will create.

In the Jewish faith it is said that trees were the first living things put on earth. Buddha attained enlightenment while seated beneath a tree. We dedicate non-religious holidays to trees all over the world. In the US you may stop to plant a tree on Arbor Day, or Dia Da Árvore in Brazil, Nationale Bloomplantdag in the Netherlands, Tag de Baumes in Germany, or Van Mahotsava in India.

We are globally united with acceptance of the significance a tree planting carries, no matter what life perspective we bring to it.

Family mulching a tree in Schenley Park to celebrate Veda.

I am often asked what the “ceremony” in the Commemorative Tree Planting Program entails. I can tell you that every single one is different. I am always there, along with Phil (our resident arborist and Parks Management and Maintenance Director) or one of our ecologists. We plant a fairly large tree (approximately 2” caliper) that has been transplanted from a local tree farm or nursery. The type of tree and exact planting location is arranged in advance based on the donor’s wishes. Sometimes large groups come to be a part of it (I’ve seen as many as 30) and other times it is just the donor. There have been groups who want to get in and get their hands dirty and others where they stand back and enjoy the tree once it is planted. Songs have been sung, prayers read, and violins played. It really can be anything you want it to be.

Kathleen and Phil with their work boots ready at a planting day.I have watched grief-stricken families approach us along a slope in Schenley Park, their faces worn with loss and exhaustion. Once the tree is in the ground they all leave a little lighter. They will see this tree again and watch it live and grow. We celebrate the endeavors of life too. I have seen a sapling transform into a monument to accomplishments large and small as the last bit of dirt is thrown. People change before our eyes - filled with new gratitude, or comfort and resilience. It is one of the greatest honors of my life to be a part of that.

Any reason to celebrate is a reason to plant a tree. I visit the trees I have helped plant and believe firmly that each tree lives in the spirit in which it was planted. They are living totems to the struggles and joys of our lives. And as if that were not gift enough, they will continue to serve our community for generations to come.

Kathleen Gaines, Manager of Individual Giving

Learn more about planting a tree for a special person or occasion in your life by clicking here.

Ecological Restoration, Highland Park, Trees and Forestry, Parks Conservancy Programs, Schenley Park, Kids and Families