David Lusk, on Old Salem tree mischief

In the late afternoon of May 5, 1989, the oldest and largest trees in historic Old Salem crashed to the ground from the winds of a fierce tornado. The losses were sudden and overwhelming. Difficult was the work of carefully lifting trees off the old buildings and cleaning up the massive pecans, oaks, maples and poplar trees with jagged upturned root systems that were ripped out, leaving craters in the rich soil. Chain-saw workers and tree climbers traversed the once calm village as bulldozers, cranes and dump trunks loaded and hauled the many criss-crossed tree trunks and limbs. A helicopter air-lifted large trees out of the sacred grounds of Salem Cemetery. There was head shaking, shock and grief mixed with a sense of duty, civic pride and a renewed allegiance to the historic community.

Later that same year, rearranging much of North Carolina, Hurricane Hugo swirled like a boomerang, bringing to Winston-Salem an unwanted dose of déjà vu.

Today, in the calm of remembrance, street trees that survived the onslaught of both tornado and Hugo stand like proud sentinels outside doorways in Old Salem. Now older and larger, some of these trees are wrecking a little mischief of their own. The buttress roots and surface roots of a number of trees are dislodging the brick sidewalks and creeping over the granite curbs. The bricks look like scattered and abandoned pieces of a puzzle that no longer fit. Because of the upheaval and potential for passersby to trip and stumble, there are many reasonable grumbles that these trees should be removed to allow for more level sidewalks.

Furthermore, some Old Salem residents fear the tree roots have and will threaten the foundation of their homes. This goes to the heart of a common fallacy that tree roots can cause cracks in foundations, sewer lines, water lines, etc. Are not the scattered brick sidewalks and visible roots enough clear evidence of their sinister ways? Truth be known, tree roots seldom are the cause of structural problems. They can, however, grow into existing defects in construction materials in search of moisture, expand en masse and exacerbate the problems. All the while, arguments brew as the circumstantial evidence and guilt by association mounts against the trees.

The city of Winston-Salem has an obligation to maintain and protect the street infrastructure within the mutual confines of Old Salem. Currently, there is a contentious debate. Do we sacrifice the trees for the sidewalk or do we sacrifice the sidewalks for the trees? Traditionally, the sidewalks most always win, until now. The Historic Resources Commission has voted to block the removal of some trees by not granting a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) in hopes of finding, along with urban forester, Derek Renegar, immediate stop-gap measures and long-term solutions. Many municipalities nationwide are re-thinking their urban tree planting methods in search of longer living, healthier trees that do not interfere with sidewalks and streets. Cornell University researchers and others have developed “structural soil” technologies that are proving to provide more viable solutions for green spaces in urban settings. The Old Salem street tree dilemma calls for a more viable, cost-effective alternative not only in Old Salem, but also downtown Winston-Salem and other parts of the city where similar conflicts exist.

Whether by man or nature, the historical loss of trees in Old Salem continues at an alarming rate. In spite of the hardships, the Old Salem street trees have revealed themselves as worthy. Their annual spring, soothing green promise of cool summer shade, transformative fall colors and earthy smells of fallen winter leaves prove to be as historically integral to Old Salem as do the buildings, wood smoke, legendary ghosts, baked bread and Candle Teas. From the ancestral seeds of America’s original forests, they manage to grow, adapt and cling to life, while insistently lamenting that their own legendary predecessors vanished much too quickly.

With what appears to be unruly games of “scatter-the-bricks” and “creep-the-curbs,” these gnarly, weather-worn, earthbound trees deserve their own “tree-right-of-way” within the overall aesthetic fabric of Old Salem. Let’s grant them, at least, a temporary stay until a better, long-term solution can be designed, funded and built with an artistic charm that well serves Old Salem; all the while, seeking the blessings of the original Salem residents who on horseback, wagon and foot, risked the grumbles and stumbles along the avenues with their own mischievous, street side trees that, by their nature, knowingly cling to brick and granite premonitions of future loss and laments.

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