By MARY STARR
Years ago, retired United Methodist minister, the Rev. Dave Hanson, began a registry of the live oak trees in Glynn County, and registered approximately 58 of them with the Mississippi Live Oak Society.
The project caught on, and Nan Marie O’Hara, a resident of St. Simons Island and board member of the Golden Isles Fund for Trees (GIFT), took the ball and ran with it. O’Hara, a history buff, can often be seen in her golf cart, measuring, naming and listing trees all over the island. A
On the group’s website, treesglynn.org, visitors can find a listing of the registered trees, most of which have been given names with historical significance. On various parts of the island one will find the Capt. Young Oak, the Pierce Butler Oak, Pink Chapel Oak and trees named for the writers of the four Gospels in the Bible — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There are also trees named in honor of those who live in the community, including Cap Fendig and the Rev. Wright Culpepper.
Sandy Turbidy, president of GIFT, hopes that by highlighting the history of the trees, people will think twice about cutting them down. In fact, people could print the registry from the website, and then use it as a means to explore the island, while learning about its history.
“We have so many beautiful trees, and people stop to admire them,” Turbidy said. “Yet it’s one of our island’s most endangered attractions. With recent high-density development, we are losing so much of our tree canopy.”
Turbidy views the trees as a living history lesson.
“The big benefit, as far as I can see, is the huge history lesson for kids,” she said.
Using the website, visitors can plan tours of the island, or simply stand near one of the registered live oaks armed with a smartphone, click on the number on the tag secured to the tree, and read its history.
Jenny Humphries, a GIFT board member as well, said the registry creates an awareness of the trees, and will encourage people to want to protect the tree canopy.
No less than the National Park Service itself has begin what it calls the Witness Tree Protection Program. Beginning in 2006, the NPS recognize the importance of documenting trees that have “witnessed” significant events. The first 24 trees to be designated as witness trees were all in the National Capital Region, and included the famous cherry trees, the Jefferson Elm near the Smithsonian Castle, the Grant Memorial Bur Oak, the Botanic Garden Elm and the Andrew Jackson Southern Magnolia, on the White House lawn.
The program has since spread to other National Park Service sites, including the battlefields at Antietam and Gettysburg.
“We’re trying to get one of their people to come here,” Turbidy said.
Turbidy said the group has been in discussions with the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote the tree registry, and so far, the response has been favorable.
A map will soon be available on the website as well.
For O’Hara, who grew up nearby and visited St. Simons Island throughout her life before moving here, said she remembers the trees triggering her imagination.
“I could hear the clip-clop of (horses’) hooves on the shells as I looked up at the trees,” she said.
Part of GIFT’s work involves informing the public about the importance of trees to the environmental balance of the area.
“We’re trying to create educational programs for people who are butchering our trees,” O’Hara said. “That’s a tall order, and it’s not super-successful yet.”
The group also is interested in laying down nice mulch at the bases of the trees in Gascoigne Park.
“Cars parking on those tree roots is not good,” said O’Hara, referring to the growing popularity of the park as a venue for large events. “We’re also trying to save the trees that have been damaged in Neptune Park.”
The group is always happy to have volunteers, and is proud of its low overhead.
“We have a great board,” said Turbidy. “For three years, we’ve operated without an office or an executive director. We want all the money to go to the trees.”
O’Hara said each member of the board has found their niche, and that makes for smooth operating.
Planting new trees presents a challenge, said Turbidy.
“Our biggest problem is water; one gallon weighs eight pounds,” she said, adding that trees aren’t planted unless the water situation is solved.
Connecting history and nature is one way to underscore the interconnectedness of the Earth and all of its living things.
“The roots of our trees keep our island together,” said O’Hara.