For Pembroke Street Superintendent Jim Pollett, an old oak tree gracing the downtown park is an important part of the present in part because of what it says about the past.
“Who knows who stood under this tree 100 years ago?” he said on a recent spring-like day while standing beneath the oak. “You can’t see it, but there is history on that ground, under that tree, regardless of what it was, good or bad. And we have several of these majestic oaks in this city that all tell a story of some kind.”
Pollett paused as a large tractor-trailer rumbled by on nearby Highway 280. He waited for the noise to diminish, and then looked up into the oak’s sprawling canopy.
“These trees can’t speak, but they do tell stories,” he said.
A week later, Pembroke Mayor Mary Warnell and more than a dozen residents, volunteers and city employees gathered at DuBois Square to commemorate Arbor Day. There, Pollet and members of his department had already planted a nuttall oak to mark the occasion.
That tree will grow to be anywhere from 40 to 60 feet tall and spread its canopy 25 to 30 feet, Pollett told those who attended the event, which also celebrated Pembroke’s status as a Tree City for the 10th straight year.
It’s a club less crowded than one might think. There are only about 3,000 communities in the U.S. that carry the Tree City designation this year — including, for the first time, Richmond Hill.
The designation is important because it can help communities earn grants, according to Richmond Hill City Planner Jennifer Sowell, who was instrumental in getting Richmond Hill its designation as a Tree City.
Both Richmond Hill and Pembroke are among only 138 Tree Cities in Georgia, a list that includes such nearby municipalities as Hinesville, Savannah and Statesboro.
Among the requirements to be a Tree City are a tree board or department, a tree ordinance, a community forestry program with an annual budget of at least $2 per capita, and an annual observance of Arbor Day, complete with a proclamation recognizing the importance of trees.
While, Richmond Hill passed a tree ordinance in 2010 after getting input from developers and groups like the Coastal Bryan Tree Foundation, Pembroke’s tree ordinance is much older — and is currently undergoing revisions to “be in compliance with guidelines and codes the Keep Georgia Beautiful organization as well as the Georgia Forestry Commission require we follow for best practices,” Warnell said.
For Pollett and Pembroke city workers Paul Doyle and Frank Hulsey, trees are a part of the job.
“I’ve just sent these two guys to arborist classes to teach them pruning and different things,” Pollett said. “I’ve been training as well, and I hope they will continue to upgrade their knowledge of how to care for the trees in Pembroke.”
Taking care of trees is hard work — it involves everything from pruning and limbing trees to felling those that are diseased and pose a threat to public safety.
Included in the latter number was a towering old pecan tree that once stood proudly in DuBois Square. People noticed when it was felled.
“We were questioned by some on why this tree came down,” Pollett said. “But it was diseased. When it hit the ground it just shattered. Once we told them that and that we’re planting another tree in its place, they understood.”
The young nuttall oak stands in its place now, carpeted with a blanket of pine straw and protected by a white picket fence.
Additional work in the park is expected, and Pollett said the more DuBois Square is used for public events, the more his crew needs to keep an eye on the trees there.
“The more activity we have, the safer I’ve got to keep it,” he said.
Pollett’s crew also has to make sure trees don’t get in the way of public safety — which means making sure fire trucks can access older residential neighborhoods where large trees line streets and shade homes.
“It’s for the safety of the firefighters and the people who live in those houses,” Pollett said. “Regardless of what the tree is, I guarantee you if your house was on fire you wouldn’t care if that tree had a limb on it or not.”
And as the Pembroke’s ordinances are revised, the city is looking at ways to be pro-active about development by requiring certain amounts of canopy. It’s unclear whether Pembroke’s founding fathers were as conscientious about trees, but a walk around town would suggest they were. Stately trees are everywhere, including about 100 trees in the city currently listed as protected.
That’s roughly one tree for every 200 of Pembroke’s 2,000 or so residents. And that’s apparently fine with those who are charged with taking care of them.
“Who would want to live in a city without trees in it?” Hulsey asked.