Upcycling Urban Trees

The decision to remove a second-generation scion of the Charter Oak was bittersweet for many parishioners at Center Church, but in September, the tree at the corner of Main and Gold was taken down. Now, a milled slab of it is on display at the Connecticut Historical Society as part of the New Life for Connecticut Trees exhibit.

It’s in good company.

Also on display: furniture made from a tree that stood in front of the Ivoryton Playhouse. That former tree’s story? In its shade, Marlon Brando and Katharine Hepburn used to run through their lines.

The exhibit opened at the beginning of November, when many Connecticut residents were still without electricity or cable due to trees collapsing onto power-lines during the late-October snowstorm.

In a way, it feels like the Year of the Tree, between the attention to them following that storm, the Tree Care Industry Trade Show and Conference, the Tree Ordinance, and now, this exhibit, which runs through March 17, 2012.

Walking through the exhibit, one finds information about the urban canopy and “street trees.” Although trees are noted for removing pollutants from the atmosphere, they are often neglected or treated carelessly upon removal. Ted and Zeb Esselstyn, the brothers behind City Bench — whose works are on display in the exhibit — explained that there is little interest in taking urban trees to sawmills because the wood almost always contains metal objects like nails, wires, and bullets, which causes damage to the equipment. Zeb Esselstyn, in an informal discussion on Saturday at the museum, said “we ruin a lot of chain saw blades” this way, but their replacements cost about $20 each, whereas a sawmill might wreck a part that costs over one grand. Because of this expense, most urban trees are burned as firewood, turned into mulch, or tossed into the landfill.

City Bench has only been milling for about two years, but they have developed a working relationship with the City of New Haven so that when trees are taken down, they are cut into 8′ lengths, instead of the standard log-size. They say they would like to work out a similar arrangement here in Hartford, but acknowledged that it takes years to work through the layers of bureaucracy. The Ebony Horsewomen have shown interest in honoring the trees in Keney Park by having them made into art. Some trees in the Old North Cemetery are also on City Bench’s radar.

Ted Esselstyn described their woodworking as a “chance to capture part of [the trees’] narrative.” He said that “bringing meaningfulness to these objects doesn’t really happen in this day and age.”

One of the objects in the exhibit is a jewelry box they were commissioned to make from a tree that was planted when the customer’s daughter , now in her forties, was a child. Larger pieces, like tables, still have some bark on the edges. Imperfections and organic edges keep character in the furniture; the modern and often entirely mechanized industry seeks to remove such “flaws” from pieces that wind up in warehouses. One item on display uses a guardrail as its base.

The Esselstyns said that commissioned work is what really drives their business; none of the works on display are currently for sale.

While New Life for Connecticut Trees is on display, the Connecticut Historical Society is also hosting Lost Landscapes: Great Trees from Connecticut’s Past — a companion exhibit — and related events. The companion exhibit contains photographs taken by Frederick S. Brown from 1886-1890. Of the trees shown, the only still standing is a Pecan at the Institute of Living. The text accompanying photographs shows a history of connectedness to trees; there is record of a complaint being made to the Valley Railroad Co. for the cutting of a limb from a tree at State Street and Ferry Street, with its author saying, “I have known the tree for over sixty years.” The landscapes in these historical photos show a very different city from the one we know now.

On Saturday, CHS hosted Thankful for Trees Day during which visitors could participate in the talk with the Esselstyns, listen to a reading of The Lorax, and receive a casual tour of trees on the museum’s grounds.

Ed Richardson, the tour guide, has created brochures about trees at the Institute of Living and Elizabeth Park. Starting in a conifer grove, Richardson called “plant exploring almost as dangerous as geographic exploring,” as he explained the demise of David Douglas, for whom the Douglas-fir is named. Though the lawn was soggy, visitors did not encounter any comparable level of danger to what Douglas had. Richardson answered questions ranging from how one can measure the height of a tree to how we can tell the difference between those that appear almost identical. An American Elm on the grounds was described as rare, since many were destroyed by Dutch Elm disease; those remaining are often found in isolation. Another oddity on the tour were the Pawpaw trees. These do not normally grow in New England, but there are several at the Connecticut Historical Society. These did not produce fruit this year, but one by the Beecher Stowe house did.

On January 28, 2012, author of American Canopy, Eric Rutkow, will be lecturing about “The Rise and Fall of Two Great American Trees.”

There is free admission to the Connecticut Historical Society on the first Saturday of each month. It is also free for CHS members, children under five, and those who possess the Hartford Museum Passport. Otherwise, general admission for adults is $8, seniors pay $6, and students/youth pay $4. They have ample free parking.

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