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Poems written on the sky PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 03 May 2017 20:22

A tornado cut through Port Washington like a giant chain saw in August 1964. The twister didn’t just remove roofs and topple walls, it actually cut some houses in half. That not a single person was killed or seriously injured was so hard to believe that people called it a miracle.

There was nothing miraculous, however, about what the tornado did to the trees of Port Washington. It laid waste to much of the city’s cover of shade trees. Along the western reaches of Grand Avenue in particular, it took down stands of magnificent deciduous trees, many of which dated to the 19th century, towering, thick-trunked elms, maples and oaks whose arching branches created a verdant canopy over a street bordered by stately old homes. 

Other arboreal disasters were to follow. Dutch elm disease claimed many of the tornado survivors, and in a 21st-century plague, the city’s ash forest was decimated by the emerald ash borer, with more than 500 sick trees in public spaces cut down in the last two years alone.

The presence of trees is often taken for granted, but when they’re gone their contributions to a community are starkly obvious and badly missed. Besides their seasonally evolving beauty, urban trees grace streets with shade, quiet, wind-breaks and bird life; they clean the air and emit oxygen while introducing nature into a largely man-made environment.

Port Washington has been hit hard by tree loss, but it’s fighting back with an aggressive program to restore the leaf canopy. This year the city’s Public Works Department will plant 600 trees along Port streets, even more than in the recent past when it added about 500 trees a year. The tree program is so ambitious that the city is starting its own nursery to ensure a dependable supply of a variety of tree types. 

It will take years to regrow the canopy, but even at a young age the plantings bring many of the benefits of trees to city streets. Some of the varieties in the eclectic mix are remarkably beautiful, especially the ornamental fruit trees at blossom time.

Residents of Port Washington have Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven to thank for the city’s commitment to trees. Under his aegis, the city has invested not only in thousands of trees, but in the resources needed to manage the public forest. The DPW now has crews led by two foresters to plant new trees, remove dying trees and maintain the tree stock with systematic pruning.

Not everyone is enthralled with the extent of the city’s tree program. A few critics have noted that the trees cost taxpayers a significant amount of money for their purchase, planting and upkeep. Others of a practical bent have said the trees will be a nuisance when they grow tall enough to interfere with utility wires and that the downtown trees will block commercial signs and views from second story windows.

There is some truth in all of the complaints, but the gifts of trees are worth every bit of their expense and bother.

The tree planting program will enhance residential streets more every year, but it has already brought new beauty and character to the downtown. For the first time in city history, trees were planted on both sides of Franklin Street as part of the rebuilding and streetscaping of four its blocks. Ten years later, the results are satisfying beyond expectation. The ranks of trees add texture, color and perspective to make Franklin one of the handsomest small-town commercial streets likely to be seen anywhere. When aglow with strings of white lights, the trees bring a sense of fantasy to the street at night.

“It’s just intuitive that a tree-filled space is better to be in than a space devoid of trees.” Vanden Noven said that in a news story in last week’s Ozaukee Press.

That’s a pretty good tree quote, if not quite as inspirational as what the poet Khalil Gibran said about trees: “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.”

Amen to the words of both tree lovers.

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