On the northern tip of Rhode Island and Massachusetts a modern-day city is being created and its gleaming skyline is made from towering trees. From the peaks of Martha’s Vineyard to the hills of Lyme, small communities are full of housing developments and stores that serve a growing population of independent tree doctors.
It’s the realization of a dream: creating “authentic, sustainable community living” in towns where forests now help sustain people.
In Cranston, R.I., the ratio of homeowners who list planting trees as one of their top priorities is staggering. For May Crawford, president of Pine Tree Farms, a local not-for-profit dedicated to the welfare of the small but enduring maples, oaks and birch now standing.
At her destination — a newer lot next to our home and yard where a tree is being installed — Crawford is wearing knee-high leather boots in cool breezes. Her standard pair of Doc Martens was broken-in last year.
“A tree brings in a rain,” she explained. “It keeps from baking in the sun, keeps it cool in the heat, helps control soil erosion, it’s a beautiful, natural, carbon-breathing plant.”
More than any other urban-to-rural change I witnessed during my recent visit, the trees rekindle the importance of backwoods living.
I visited Crawford and various other tree-focused communities as part of a nationwide writing project by the John and Mary Alice Pearl Fund, a history-focused nonprofit organization dedicated to honoring the dynamism of small towns.
The budget for such projects requires a specific blend of proximity and call, which is why each member of the fund’s three regions is involved in a different part of the country: a longtime industrial area in the northeast, central Appalachia and Southern California. To meet the budget, they leave their respective cities and communities and, as much as possible, stay in the woods.
In Massachusetts, the brothers John and Mary Jane Pearl (of Blue Square, Tamarinds, and Littlejohn’s fame) were inspired to create the philanthropic fund by a secret collection of oak logs that their father kept in the basement of their family home in Wellesley. The logs were given to their mother when she retired in the late 1960s.
Years later, the father made headlines when he undertook what is now called the Wellesley Oak Project. He began stuffing wood and creating design elements for buildings. It was a process that became the symbol of a New England heritage preserved for generations.
As John and Mary Jane readied the Pearl Fund for its first major challenge — sustaining its seed-money coffers in the 1990s — their forefathers inspired them to keep working on connecting people to the woods.
In Boston, they found their trailhead in the revitalized downtown Baker Village, the charming wooden village where Pine Tree Farms operates.
In most of the places I visited, my visits were part of fund’s Wild Project, a series of informative trips that cross across the three states to document communities where residents are dedicated to reconnecting people to the earth.
There are no trips here of the short run — there is nothing run by the public. My itinerary was completely programmed around visits to tree businesses.
Other than our trip together, Crawford and I had never met. In fact, we had never seen the same tree. In lieu of tickets on our respective buses, we shared a drink, a conversation and some ibuprofen, and spent a day in an unlikely setting. We didn’t take a minute to orient ourselves.
I actually prefer big-city settings for my writing projects. The long lineups at coffee shops on any given morning sometimes limit the time I have to produce something of value, making it seem as if I am creating my inner life online. In almost any town or city, I see small trees. They are welcoming and strong. They exude timeless, elemental quality. These woods are capable of standing on their own. They are what sustain life and connect our world to nature.
Crawford opened the door to my house and peered in. My own home is made of wood — we walked a few steps to my old garage and began on the New England seedlings. One of them, the tall maple, was browning at the crown.
“You look very interested in the old growth,” Crawford said.
I did. It would be years before I had the opportunity to head to the heights of that lush forest that I could so easily envision living in. But as I watched Crawford work to shape the history of this young tree, I also could see that the history of town is