By Douglas Feiden
The village’s urban forest continued to branch out this year with four new trees planted on Main, Hampton, Clinton and East Union streets, courtesy of the green thumbs at the Sag Harbor Tree Fund.
But the raging fire that destroyed several buildings on Main Street also imperiled two trees on either side of the Sag Harbor Cinema, according to the fund, which keeps a watchful eye on the village’s woodlands.
The elm tree directly to the right of the cinema’s entrance — in front of the lost Compass office, at the base of the demolished Meridian Building — may be the most vulnerable, and the other, also believed to be an elm, in front of Brown Harris Stevens, may also be at risk.
“Between the heat of the fire and damage from demolition, it would be a miracle if they survived,” said landscape architect Edmund Hollander. “On the other hand, if they are healthy this spring, we should make every attempt to save them.”
Noting that the trees could potentially stand in the way of reconstruction, he added, “As with many things involved with rebuilding the cinema, we still have more questions than answers.”
If the trees “bud out when it gets warm,” they could survive, said Tree Fund board member Julie Hatfield, referring to the leaves that emerge in plain sight on a healthy tree in the spring. “But if they’re damaged, we’ll replace them,” she added.
Meanwhile, the Tree Fund recently planted an October Glory red maple, an Acer rubrum, on East Union Street, a gift from the family of David Bray in memory of his late husband Neal Hartman, a longtime Tree Fund supporter.
“It can live for 150 years and reach a height of 40 to 50 feet,” said Mac Griswold, a cultural landscape historian and Tree Fund board member. “And it faces the entrance to Christ Episcopal Church so that David will see his tree very Sunday when he worships there.”
Another remembrance tree — a Styrax japanicus, or Japanese snowbell — was planted at 169 Main Street to recall the life of Encie Babcock, a Sag Harbor native, family matriarch and graduate of Pierson High School, Class of 1930, who died in 2008 at the age of 97.
Another commemorative tree, an Autumn Blaze red maple, was planted at the corner of Hampton and Clinton streets in memory of the late Muriel Dimen by her friends, and a fourth, at 51 Hampton Street, an elm, specifically a Frontier Ulmus parvifolia, honors Joan Ruffins and is a gift from Reynold Ruffins.
Established in 1993, the fund has planted 349 trees throughout the village, and commits to planting, watering, pruning, mulching and otherwise maintaining them for a three-year period, thanks to the efforts of landscaper Antonio Sanches. Roughly 23 trees are currently in that three-year maintenance cycle.
“We all depend on Antonio, who has worked for us since 1995, and his son Tony, who works for his father’s company,” Ms. Griswold said.
“It’s all about life and death,” she added. “Usually, these are remembrance trees for people who have died, and we want to make sure that the tree itself doesn’t die. A tree can also commemorate a wedding, a graduation or other occasions.”
The costs? “One thousand dollars will get you a beautiful tree and a commemorative plaque and three years of care,” she said “And for $700, you will get that same beautiful tree, and the same excellent care, but you won’t have a plaque, you’ll just remember yourself.”
Of course, Sag Harbor did not always love its trees, explains Ms. Griswold, who is the author of “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island,” published in 2013.
“When Main Street was first laid out in the 18th century, nobody wanted any trees,” she says. At the time, the colonists in the village and elsewhere thought of trees as signifying the native wilderness, and in that era, settlers were not in the business of planting trees — they were too busy uprooting them.
That changed in the early 19th century, influenced in part by the teachings of New England transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose writings touched on the paramount importance of nature.
“Americans looked around them and saw that they wanted trees after all,” Ms. Griswold said.
Before long, a beautification movement had sprung up around the country, and in its larger urban areas, that evolved into the City Beautiful Movement.
The Sag Harbor Tree Fund is a modern-day incarnation of those intertwined movements: In planting street trees on village-owned tree lawns, it beautifies and enhances local streetscapes, and in selecting appropriate trees for specific sites, and in striving for a diversity of species, it is better able to reduce the effects of disease and insect infestations — and maintain its treasures for the generations.