Energy & Environment

The rise and fall of the ‘biggest tree in Burlington’

A drone photo shows the large eastern cottonwood on Howard Street in Burlington on July 20, the day of its removal. Photo courtesy of Scott Sexton

The buzz of chainsaws provided the exit music for a large eastern cottonwood that once towered over Howard Street in Burlington, as the life of the tree came to an end. 

The eastern cottonwood — known to many as the largest tree in the city — was slated for removal this week. Though removing the tree in its entirety will likely take two days, the process of lopping off chunks of the tree and lowering them with a crane began on Wednesday. 

The tree’s best days are behind it, according to several arborists, in part because it was struck by lightning in 2011 and never quite healed. As it declined in health and became more of a hazard, property owners decided they’d worried long enough with concerns over safety and damages. 

“It’s been a tough decision,” said PJ McHenry, who owns property where a portion of the trunk stands. “There's been a lot of damage and just protecting the kids and keeping the safety of our kids is really what drove the decision.” 

McHenry said he plans to plant a new tree in its place, in collaboration with Casey Roberson, McHenry’s next-door neighbor, whose backyard shares the other portion of the eastern cottonwood’s trunk. 

The tree last month. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A tree service company’s largest removal project yet 

Danielle Roberts, who works for Barrett’s Tree Service, said the company is removing the tree bit by bit, sawing off limbs and lowering them via a company crane, then putting the wood chunks through a chipper on the ground. 

This is by far the biggest tree Barrett’s has ever cut down, Roberts said. 

Once the crew gets down to the trunk, which is an estimated 30 feet around at its widest, the strategy will change, because the company crane can bear only so much weight, said another employee, Joe LaRock. 

Barrett’s may use its own crane to take the tree down in 5,000-pound bits, but may rent a bigger crane that can handle the trunk 20,000 pounds at a time, LaRock said. 

While Wednesday’s focus was on removing the tree’s limbs and canopy, Barrett’s plans to tackle the bulk of the trunk on a separate day, he said. 

Barrett's Tree Service works to remove the eastern cottonwood. Photo courtesy of Scott Sexton

Drawing arborists from near and far 

John Swepston, owner of Swepston Arbor Works, took Wednesday off and came to Burlington from his hometown in Bristol just to watch the removal process and see how the other arborists went about the task. 

“I didn't want to miss it for the world,” he said. 

Swepston worked on the Howard Street cottonwood himself at one point, pruning it and working to salvage it after the 2011 lightning strike by removing an 80-foot-long lightning-damaged limb, he said. 

“I've known about the tree since 2006 and even before that, I'd seen it,” Swepston said. “I had the honor of climbing it, and it was, as I remember it, one of the worst climbs I ever did.” 

At the time, Swepston was working for Limbwalker Tree Service. He’s been an arborist for nearly 20 years. Now, he runs his own company, which focuses on trees smaller than the Howard Street cottonwood, as he doesn’t have the equipment needed to take down a tree of that scale. 

Still, he decided to bring along his employee, Cameron Messer, as a sort of learning opportunity. Messer has been in the industry for two and a half years. 

“We learned about (the removal) a couple of months ago and we definitely at that moment said, ‘We're gonna take the day off and go on up,’ because I'm still in my learning period,” Messer said. “We don't do this stuff, really, in our day-to-day, but it's really interesting and worthwhile to come out and see.” 

Swepston said he had sent people to pay a visit to the Howard Street cottonwood “all the time.” 

“Every arborist that I know in the area knows about this tree.” Swepston said. “All the arborists knew that this tree was here and a friend of mine is going to come later. She's very familiar with the tree; it's one of those trees that you can't miss in Burlington.” 

Both Swepston and Messer said tree removal isn’t their favorite part of the job, but both enjoy aspects of the process, especially climbing trees. 

“I don't love removing trees because I don't want to remove trees, but it's one of the more exciting, challenging things to do,” Swepston said. “It takes all your arborist skill and knowledge and you’ve got to be calm and collected when you do something like that because it's dangerous, so the big element is the danger translates to excitement.” 

Scott Sexton, who’s been climbing for 33 years, works for Barrett’s but was unable to go up in the tree himself because of an injured rotator cuff. Instead, he sent his drone up to take in the view. Other people had the same idea, and several drones hung in the air Wednesday, surrounding the cottonwood’s canopy. 

“I wanted to climb that tree so bad,” Sexton said. “I don't have mixed feelings because I know it has to go. … (Otherwise) it's gonna go right through the house and possibly hurt or kill somebody, or just even property damage. It’s outlived its purpose.” 

Swepston, too, understands why the property owners chose to remove the tree. 

“The list is this long,” he said, holding his hands apart to show the numerous reasons it was time for the tree to come down. Still, Swepston believes the tree to be over 100 years old and is partly disappointed to know the tree has finally reached its life’s end. 

“It’s tough to see that tree go; it’s really tough,” he said. “You're removing this big 100-year-old, semi-sturdy creature. It's kind of sad.”  

Artist Madeleine Murray makes relief prints of the bark of a large eastern cottonwood tree in her yard in Burlington on June 14. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

An artist preserves a tree’s legacy 

Madeleine Murray, an artist and who lives on the property where the cottonwood stood, struggled for some time with saying goodbye. She has come to a point of acceptance, she said, though she left town purposely to avoid the noise and commotion of having to watch. 

Ever since she found out the tree was going to be removed, she’s been working to commemorate its life in her artwork, which started with a series of prints that captured the patterns of the tree’s bark, and aimed to capture the scale of its size to some extent as well. 

Now, while Murray is out of town, she’s attending an eco-printing workshop, learning to make dyes and prints with ink she’s creating from the tree itself, using leaves and chemical compounds called catechins from parts of the tree. 

“The dye of the catechins is a deep red, which is cool and surprising,” she said. “Last week, I was there and I made as many tree bark prints as I could and I offered them on a commission basis and got many orders.” 

Murray got the grant to attend her eco-dyeing workshop before she knew the tree would be removed, but is grateful the opportunity aligned with the time she’s spent preserving the tree through art. 

She has already made quite a bit of money from the tree prints, all of which are botanically themed, and she’s excited to be sending pieces of the tree, in a sense, all across the country. 

“The tree project really felt like a collaboration,” she said. “Not just me making art, which is what I usually do, but sort of working with another being — that tree, for me, it really is like a being, and it just felt like a way to sort of save it and share it.” 

While Murray recognizes the importance of removing the tree before it seriously injures someone, she’s not looking forward to returning home and finding emptiness where the eastern cottonwood stood. 

“I've been feeling frantically busy and trying to make as many tree things as possible,” she said. “I think it's probably going to hit me when I get back and it's gone.” 

Murray plans to hold an exhibit of her tree-related artwork, ideally in a fairly large gallery space, in an effort to capture the scale of the tree itself, she said — enough space to mimic the vast space the tree once took up.

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Ella Ruehsen

About Ella

Ella is a student at the University of Vermont, where she is majoring in environmental studies and was recently elected editor in chief of the Vermont Cynic, the school’s independent student newspaper. She previously was a reporter and news editor at the Cynic and interned last summer at the Burlington Free Press.

Email: [email protected]

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