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City Observed: Power Plants
The friendly eco-warriors of Trees Atlanta work to keep our “City in the Forest” green.
Brighton West is an unflappably friendly young man with thin blond hair that falls past his cheeks. He started volunteering with Trees Atlanta 10 years ago, and for the past two and a half years, he has been one of eight staffers at the 21-year-old organization. On this gloomy Friday in January, he’s got a busy day ahead. This will be an unusually active weekend. On top of two regular Saturday morning volunteer planting projects (one of which he will supervise and coordinate), Trees Atlanta will have more on Monday, which is Martin Luther King Day.

On a normal Friday, Brighton would meet the truck from Fayetteville’s Harp’s Farm Nursery to drop off pre-selected trees at the next day’s planned projects—usually two or three in the intown area. Today he’s doing that—as well as dropping off trees at Morehouse College for one of the three MLK Day plantings. After the trees are deposited in the parking lot in front of W.E.B. DuBois Hall at the college, Brighton follows the truck to Underwood Hills Park off Howell Mill near I-75. This is where he’ll be at 8:30 Saturday morning, hoping for a good crowd of volunteers.

Brighton and a volunteer, Jim Abbot, help the Harp’s driver unload the Chinkapin oaks, dwarf river birches and other saplings quickly, as the wind rises, pushing piles of leaves down the park’s driveway toward a small pile of old, wet mulch. The weather today is about to turn ugly, with whipping rain and devilish winds darkening the skies and scouring the urban streetscape. Saturday promises clouds, possible flurries and windchills in the 20s. The unsavory conditions mean that the forecast for volunteer attendance is cloudy too.

The city’s largest landscape company? That’s a common misconception about Trees Atlanta. Another one is that it was founded by a bunch of tree-huggers. In fact, Trees Atlanta’s roots are in the business realm. In 1985, the downtown business booster organization, Central Atlanta Progress, and the Junior League of Atlanta founded the nonprofit organization to address lost convention business because the so-called “City in the Forest” wasn’t green enough.

Trees Atlanta began planting along downtown streets and in urban parks. Since then, it has grown from putting green back into the city center to sprucing up neighborhoods throughout intown Atlanta and serving as an advocate for the metro area’s urban forest. Contract plantings with the city and businesses now take up about 40 percent of Trees Atlanta’s funds and time. Volunteerism has been an active part of its success since 1990. Cheryl Kortemeier, an administrative director who started as a volunteer in 1996 and joined the growing staff in 1998, says, “Our volunteer program has gone from being something that was sort of for fun in the beginning to being our lifeblood.” The weekly e-mail list flows through Internet arteries to more than 1,500 volunteers, about 40 of whom form a solid core of regular weekly volunteers.

Trees Atlanta does more than plant trees, which they can only do during the season of dormancy, from October through March. Spring and summer are for mulching, pruning and watering; they maintain every tree they plant, monitoring it through a sophisticated database that shows where, when and with what funds the tree was planted. They also educate the public about trees and campaign to preserve the city’s stately giants. While Trees Atlanta has been instrumental in re-greening streetscapes inside the Perimeter, the overall metro region has lost tree cover. Since 1972, metro Atlanta has lost 65 percent of its tree cover and continues to lose 55 acres per day. When funding is available, Trees Atlanta also spearheads forest restoration, Brighton’s specialty. Funding and personnel shortages have temporarily sidelined him to doing the weekend plantings rather than pulling invasive species from forested areas to make room for native plants.

Second in importance to the environmental impact of planting and saving trees is fostering community. “People often can’t figure out a way to get involved positively,” says Greg Levine, program director for Trees Atlanta, who creates new projects and puts them into operation. He, too, started as a volunteer—albeit for one day to check out a job opportunity—before going to work full-time with the operation. That was 11 years ago. “Tree planting brings new people together that normally would not come together. It brings new people into different neighborhoods, and hopefully those people will start feeling comfortable in all parts of the city.”

Saturday dawns, cold and cloudy and windy as hell. Yet the turnout beats the forecast. More than 30 volunteers have gathered at Underwood Hills Park to plant 54 trees over the next three hours. A troupe of women from Georgia Tech’s Omega Phi Alpha sorority are bundled up and awaiting instructions, as are at least a dozen teenagers from Westminster and Paideia schools. Neighborhood volunteers and others round out the crew.

Brighton gives a rousing pep talk and welcomes the crowd as two volunteers dig the sample hole. He asks how many have planted with Trees Atlanta before, and raised hands show that a good number of the volunteers are not first-timers. After the sample pit is complete, Brighton explains the reasons for its shape, width and depth. He fumbles for a word to describe the hole’s contours, and one of the volunteers offers “funnel.”

“Yes, funnel, that’s good,” Brighton says with a dimpled grin. “I know our Tech students know what a funnel is.” Everyone laughs. “But our Westminster people—they should not know ‘funnel.’”

The wind has everyone huddled together and stamping their feet, but Brighton promises that once the digging starts in earnest, they’ll warm right up. As the volunteers disperse like pollen in the gusting wind, Brighton takes one last look at the Georgia oak he tried to plant upright in the demo hole with some assistance from the crowd. “That tree’s crooked.” He shakes his head and says jokingly, “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted those people.”

Then the digging begins: Tech students start planting in Underwood Hills Park while high school students trek en masse to plant 15 evergreens in front of the chain-link fence by the graveyard for Frosty Treats vans on Defoor Avenue. Before long, they’ve migrated a few streets over to the Wachovia Bank on Chattahoochee Avenue, a project Brighton watches closely. Wachovia has sponsored Trees Atlanta financially before, but Greg Levine has worked for months to get the chance to plant at the bank’s branch locations. This is the first authorized planting, and Brighton will make sure it’s the flagship of the day’s efforts. With no nearby trees to cut its path, the wind sweeping the bank’s lawn is fierce. “Oh my God, that tree is whistling,” Brighton muses at one sapling about to topple over in its pot. “It’s a whistling oak.”

By the end of the day, the bank boasts five neatly planted new trees. At the park, a new line of green along the baseball field will someday shield the I-75 sound wall from view; since time and the good turnout allowed, the underbrush is now much less cluttered by root-choking
privet bushes. Brighton is satisfied with the day’s achievements and is smiling, as always. His only go-to regular today was Marty Ussery, a landscape architect who spent the morning watering the far-flung plantings and coordinating volunteers (“herding cats,” he calls it). “Today I only have one Marty,” Brighton says. “I could use a couple more.”

Between Brighton’s project and the other Saturday morning planting in Chamblee, 103 trees are stretching their roots in new homes, waiting for spring to blossom. They join the almost 68,000 others that Trees Atlanta has planted in the past 21 years. Two volunteers got T-shirts today to reward them for taking part in their sixth projects. They’re well on their way to being called regulars. For three hours of labor on one cold weekend morning, that’s a good day’s work.