If a Tree Falls....

A week before I started as the new Executive Director of the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum our region was hit by a powerful and destructive wind storm.  Thousands of large trees were splintered, snapped or uprooted across the mid-Hudson Valley.  Homes, schools and businesses lost power for days.  The Outdoor Discovery Center took a big hit too.  I learned this hours after the storm blew through when a friend who walks the property most evenings called and left me an ominous message, “There are some very big trees down at the Nature Museum, I thought you should know.” 

He was right.  Next to Stillman Barn a towering ninety-foot pine had completely uprooted and toppled across the entrance to the lower parking lot.  Lucky for us the large pine did only minor damage to a small informational kiosk adjacent to a short path connecting to the upper lot.  On several forest trails we had large scale blowdowns which will require many weeks or months to clear.  And in Grasshopper Grove two majestic shagbark hickory trees, perhaps a century or more in age, uprooted, nearly bisecting the play area.  It was as if a skilled logger had precisely dropped both trees to avoid the benches and other constructed objects in the grove.

The trees had provided shade for children and parents enjoying Grasshopper Grove on scorching summer days, and on certain special evenings their highest branches would become illuminated by the light of a setting sun beaming through broken clouds from the western horizon.

This is nature.  Wild.  Frequently unpredictable.  Seemingly capricious.  Often staggeringly beautiful.  But forever challenging.  Try as we might to tame and control it, we are always humbled by its power and presence.  Taking that perspective as a guide and tapping into the creativity and resourcefulness of a highly motivated staff, we decided to turn these two giant lemons into a cool pitcher of lemonade.

First, we needed to understand if the trees were stable where they fell, or if they required major bracing or relocation.  At the edge of the grove between the exterior fence and a stone wall, the giant root systems were splayed into the air.  Near the heart of the play area their massive crowns pointed out in all directions with soaring limbs, broken branches and a mass of bright green leaves.  The tangled mess made it difficult to fully assess the situation, so in a series of improvised on-site meetings the ad hoc Grasshopper Grove Action Team (a small group of relevant Nature Museum staff) developed a rapid response plan.

Beckley Tree Service arrived the following day and chipped the branches, limbs and tangled leaves down to eye height.  The action team reassembled in the grove that evening and in a short meeting agreed on a final design and configuration.  Amazingly the trees did not have to be dragged, shifted, braced or re-positioned in any way.  They had fallen so as to be perfectly supported by several large boulders and the mixed grass and wood chip surface of Grasshopper Grove.   We positioned a few large diameter wheels (3 to 4 foot sections cut from other trees) to stiffen the bounciest limbs, and in several Zen-like sessions yours truly and four community volunteers stripped away the beautiful gray scaly bark.  Removing the bark helps to preserve the hardwood trunk and limbs while providing a more usable and safer climbing surface.  Days later Nannini & Callahan Excavating removed the massive stumps and roots, filled in the large holes created by the upended root systems, and shifted several sharp-edged boulders away from the fallen trunks.

In just three weeks, and with the indispensable help of super volunteers and local contractors, the Nature Museum has re-purposed the two fallen trees into a super cool climbing element that will open on Saturday (June 16).  We hope you will come and experience what we’ve done in partnership with mother nature.   See you in Grasshopper Grove!!!

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                               Tom Bregman