Tree hugging: Fufilling a family legacy

Since an early age trees have fascinated me. I think it dates back to a grade school leaf collection assignment.

My dear grandmother took me on a long walk into the woods around her house during one of my regular weekend visits. It seemed to me as though she knew the name of every tree we encountered and had some story to tell about its particular qualities. As my collection for the assignment grew, so did my curiosity for trees.

I’m still in awe of my grandmother’s knowledge, learned not from books, but from a life of living and working outdoors. It is a great joy to me that my love of trees began with her, who was such a very special person to me. She passed away last October at the age of 92.

Over the past few years, trees have come to occupy more and more of my time for several reasons.

One came about when I signed up for an urban forestry class two years ago. The course offered a mix of classroom instruction and walking tours to help students identify species.

The most informative session (and my favorite) was our walk around Vanderbilt’s campus. Vanderbilt is considered a national arboretum and features over 300 different species of trees and shrubs, many of which are labeled.

Following my tree class, I became a tree dork. I obsessed over identifying any type of tree I encountered. For awhile, all my conversations revolved around pointing to a tree and dramatically asking (usually to my partner Miguel) “what kind of tree is that?!” Of course, no one usually knew the answer, so I would boastfully announce the tree’s name, and gloat in self-satisfaction.

Later I found myself serving on a committee dedicated to raising awareness for urban forestry issues in Nashville - discussing the formerly foreign topics of tree canopy cover and urban heat island effect.

I also joined the Arbor Day Foundation and ordered about 30 trees from their Web site. Unfortunately, only a few of the surprisingly waifish spouts survived (my fault), but the overall experience was informative. Their website ( is also a superb educational resource.

A few of my favorite trees:

American Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides)
American Sycamore  (Platanus occidentalis)
Southern Magnolia  (Magnolia grandiflora)
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Tree-related resources:

The most significant reason is the result of a sudden and unexpected friendship. Shortly after moving to Nashville, I met Nashville native Stephen McRedmond, who lives on his ancestral family farm in a cabin he built with his equally brilliant partner Matthew.

Over the past 20 years Stephen has planted more than 500 trees across his property, creating a beautiful and diverse landscape that continues to evolve with each passing year. His love of the land, its history and the time he has spent planting trees to alter and enhance it, has in turn inspired me in the way I think of my own family farm.

The Gaston homestead consists of approximately 200 acres in the middle of West Tennessee. It has been in my family, as best as I can determine, for around 150 years. No longer a functioning farm, its somewhat overgrown fields are nestled on the swampy banks of the Forked Deer River.

Lately, I’ve taken to the idea of transplanting saplings growing on the farm instead of buying common native trees. During visits home I mark the different species that I will transplant in the fall. To add some variety, I’ll still need to buy some trees from a nursery or take my chances again with Arbor Day.

My ultimate goal is to follow in Stephen’s footsteps. I want to be a good steward of the land, and to pass along to future Gaston generations the appreciation and love for trees I learned so long ago from my grandmother. It is an endeavor I know would make her proud.

Gary Gaston is the Design Studio Director of the Nashville Civic Design Center and a regular contributor to Out & About Newspaper; he also co-writes the Guy and Girl on Green blog. Gary lives with his partner and dog in East Nashville.

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