September 11, 2023 /
Christina Hester / Kelsey Desmond / Sam Nelson

Connecting to Trees

One of our founding values here at Casey Trees is connecting people to trees – through trees. And while we achieve this through a wide variety of educational, volunteer, and outreach events, we understand the importance of leading by example. Luckily, Casey Trees is filled with individuals who are each passionate about and connected to trees in so many different ways – and they would like to share their stories.

Christina Hester – Multimedia Communications Associate

Growing up in the subtropics, I didn’t experience the “normal” tell-tale signs of seasons changing. To the unknowing senses it may feel like a constant summer, but as a native I learned to appreciate different seasonal things. Sunny Winter days, where weeks could go by without rain. Or when Fall rolls around and brings the most dragonflies you’ve ever seen. But easily my favorite seasonal treat is when mangoes ring in the summer back home.

In the backyard of my childhood home stands a Mango tree. It’s been there for as long as I can remember, my mom planted it herself from a seed – where it remains today, strong and sturdy, more than 20 years later.

Every summer, up until recently, I would trek out to my backyard with a bucket in one hand and fruit grabber in the other, ready to harvest the day’s bounty. Throughout the years, my mango tree and I faced various challenges. From drought to illness to theft to invasive species attacks. And every year I learned new, better ways to protect the tree.

It seemed like the tree was always grateful in return! Providing buckets full of sweet fruit, more than any one family could eat – we’d be giving mangoes away to anyone and everyone who would accept them. The abundance of fruit would also lead to my mother making delicious recipes like mango bread, jelly, smoothies, salsa, you name it- she makes it!

The years of watching the tree and collecting its fruit taught me a lot, about how trees work, where food comes from, and even about the importance of things like sharing with friends or neighbors. The relationship that I fostered with my mango tree changed the way I look at other trees. Understanding all that they provide and learning it from a young age cemented the value of trees in my head and was probably the first step in me becoming an environmental advocate.

Kelsey Desmond – Youth Programs Manager

Kelsey at the Arboretum

Kelsey at the Arboretum.

My encounter with this tree is the stuff of Halloween stories. I attended a full moon forest bathing at the U.S. National Arboretum. The focus of these “forest therapy” sessions is to tap into your innate sense of play and imagination, while soaking up the benefits of being in the outdoors. Our invitation was to run into the moonlight and “meet” a tree.

In the field near the Capitol Columns, I felt called to sit with a Ginkgo tree. Its fan-shaped leaves were clear to me, even in the moonlight. Its branches were laden with plump round fruit. I know we aren’t “supposed” to like Ginkgo trees’ smelly fruits. But to me, I got to see the tree in its full, abundant iteration.

Arboretum Capitol Columns

View of the Capitol Columns at the National Arboretum.

Immediately, I felt calm and ease wash over me. It was almost as if the tree was asking me to sit still with it, so we could enjoy each other’s company. And so I sat. Those who know me know I am very much a busy bee. I pack my schedule with social events, work, reading, listening to podcasts, going to concerts. It is a powerful thing to be still.

I still visit the Ginkgo tree from time to time. It is a reminder to me to sit and pause. It can seem whimsical or even magical to create a relationship with a tree. Yet, it is a wonder to be able to imagine I am actually being invited to create space for myself by a non-human being. My forest bathing experience allowed me to imagine fantastic characters for each tree I meet, to consider the history trees witness, to really steep in the benefits of our urban forest.

Sam Nelson – Youth Programs Forester

There are so many special trees in my everyday life that I love and think about—but I’m also a sucker for tree tourism. And I have a special affection for the trees in Central and Southern Mexico. Mexico is often misconceptualized as a vast desert in the north and sub-tropical jungles in the south. But it’s a nation with incredibly diverse geography, climates, botanical life, and eco-social histories. I’m especially fond of the trees in the state of Oaxaca. In the Zapotec-managed forest in Sierra Norte, there are hybridized oaks so strange they’re hard to identify (Mexico has the most species of oaks in the world). In the Cantera-stoned squares of Oaxaca city’s centro, brash reds of coral trees, shaving brush trees, and the árbol de fuego affirm their common names.

But in the town of Tule outside Oaxaca, lives a very special tree, a Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) or ahuehuete, a Nahuatl word meaning “old man in the water.” The Árbol del Tule is the widest tree in the world with a circumference of more than 100 feet. Beyond the botanical magnificence of this buttressed wooden castle, the tree possesses a unique social history, not just as a witness, but as a participant, too, living alongside humans for centuries. It was long-stewarded by Zapotecs and then the Spanish who colonized the area and constructed a neighboring catholic church. Visit it now, and children with laser pointers will outline the shapes of animals in the bark.

People gather around it daily in wonder, which is why I tried not to cry too publicly and alarm folks. But sometimes the right tree finds you, humbles you, tells you a story or many stories.

They’re what Ursula Le Guin called container stories—vessels that contain the woven narratives of the many lives that shared a land. A tree like this is a large container. When I lean against the fence and see the children highlighting animals etched into the container’s surface, I’m reminded that my brief presence here is such a tiny part of that story. Some trees have that kind of power—the power of a timescale so different than humans that we’re requisitely humbled. This cypress is one of those trees. There are so many reasons to spend time in Mexico and its diverse regions—the people, the food, history, culture, but also the trees, from the twisting mountain oaks to the wide cypresses still growing, expanding, story-telling across millennia.