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Love of trees no mystery for Camden’s urban forester
Gilland’s journey started with one white pine
Urban Forester (W).jpg
Camden’s ‘Tree Lady,’ Liz Gilland, plants a young tree in Rectory Square. - photo by Salley McInerney

Liz Gilland grasped the steering wheel of her big, white truck. Camden’s caretaker of trees looked perplexed.

“That is such an obvious question, but I am not sure I have an answer for it,” she said.

The query: Why do you love trees?

Gilland thought a moment, staring out the truck’s window.

“I’m originally from New York State. I lived in a suburban neighborhood. There was this beautiful little 10 acres of woods behind our neighborhood. We played there all the time. We’d play house in the woods. There were trees that dropped giant acorns. We used the little shells for teacups. The first tree I ever had an affinity for was in that 10-acre wood. It was a White Pine. It was so big, and of course, when you’re little, everything seems bigger. It took maybe eight of us holding hands to wrap our arms all the way around it. That must have been the point where my journey started.”

Gilland’s journey with trees took her from that 10-acre wood to forestry school at Virginia Tech and, in 1989, to Camden. Her business card reads “Urban Forester”.

“My job is to take care of the city’s trees. I am a department of one.”

A department of one, responsible for some 6,000 trees living along the city’s streets and in its parks and public spaces.

“As a community,” Gilland said, “we have a good diversity of trees, but, like all other communities, we have an aging tree population.”

According to Gilland, Camden’s affinity for trees is “in our very foundation as a community.”

A tree protection ordinance was established in 1798 and “trees were purposely planted at various times in history -- 200 years ago, 80 to 100 years ago and 40 to 60 years ago.”

One of Camden’s oldest trees is located on Fair Street, near the intersection of Greene Street.

Gilland steered her truck down Fair, slowed, and pulled off to the right.

“We’ll just kind of jump the curb a little bit.”

Bump. Stop. Flashers on.

Gilland peered out the window at a magnificent Post Oak. Tall, grand. You name it. A stunning tree.

“At the moment, it’s probably the largest street tree we have. At some point in time, someone probably planted this tree. It’s impressive. To still have a tree this size in the city is extremely rare.”

Wearing an orange safety vest, which fights ever so slightly with Gilland’s auburn hair, the urban forester used a tool to take the oak’s measurements.

“It’s 51 inches in diameter and 160 inches in circumference. It’s in fair to good condition. It’s every bit of 200 years old. Maybe 225 years old. The only way of knowing for sure is once it comes down.”

Not a pleasant thought.

There’s a litany of forces that harms Camden’s oldest trees: “Underground utilities, road expansion, man, old age, weather. Even when trees withstand significant storms, you can have internal cracks within the branches and the trunks.

“Before I got this job, I used to sleep fine during storms. Now, I worry. ‘What’s going to happen to this or that tree?’ The morning after a storm, I brace for impact.”

Gilland looked up into the massive branches of the Post Oak.

“I’m strongly attached to it because of its sheer size and endurance in the landscape. I mean, it’s just so old, and it’s been a fixture in the landscape for more than two centuries.”

A fixture that people clearly care about.

A passerby pulled her car over when she saw Gilland working around the oak.

“Do you have plans for this tree?” the woman wanted to know.

“No,” Gilland answered, “we’re just looking at it.”

A significant part of Gilland’s job is working with people.

“It can be a challenge,” she said. “There are people who are afraid of trees. They are afraid of them falling. Folks are just not used to nature happening. I had a lady who wanted a tree taken down because she said it was attracting ants to her porch. She was very persistent about it. I suggested she sweep the ants off the porch with a broom. Or, get some spray. People have gotten so removed from nature, they just don’t know what to do sometimes.”

Gilland provides “residential tree checks” for city dwellers who are concerned about trees in their yards, but the majority of her work is caring for trees on city property, planning for and planting new trees on city property, removing dead limbs, and taking down those trees that have become hazards.

“Sometimes I feel relieved when I have to remove a tree,” Gilland said, “and sometimes I feel sad.

“Trees provide so much. Shade is the most obvious thing. A cooling effect. Storm water management. The canopies of Camden’s trees capture and slow rain before it hits the ground. Tree leaves help to filter dust and particulate pollutants. They act as visual screens. Economic development. Studies have shown that people linger longer in landscaped shopping areas. And oxygen. Trees provide us with oxygen.”

Gilland pulled off the curb on Fair Street -- bump -- and headed for Rectory Square where she pointed out a towering Southern Red Oak.

“We don’t have many red oaks this size.”

Then, she headed to Hampton Park where enormous pine trees reach for the sky.

“This area used to be a forest. Some of these pines are more than 100 feet tall. They are about 125 to 150 years old. They were probably seeded in by squirrels.”

Driving back to her downtown office, Gilland’s eyes are on the trees she passes by.

“You get to know all the trees. Their character and health. I told my boss, if I ever get in a car accident it’s because I’m always looking up.”

Looking up.

And looking after Camden’s trees.

(Share story ideas with McInerney by emailing her at salley.mac@gmail.com.)