The Splendor of Trees

Peter Golden writer

Fine art and antiques are known by their provenance—the sum total of the past influences that define their significance and value.

Landscape and trees have a provenance, too, and in the case of Wellesley and Weston, it is a fascinating one. Intrepid individuals, unique circumstances, and historic phenomena have shaped the greenspace of both towns, leaving indelible marks on the two communities, often in little-known or long-forgotten ways.

People in both towns clearly care about their green heritage and are committed to preserving and claiming their share of open space. But how does one go about the business of ensuring a shared vision of pastoral beauty while seeing to it that one’s posterity will benefit from the splendor of trees, a sense of the passing seasons, and the restorative power of nature?

Can such a vision, so apparently at odds with “development” and the growing inevitability of global warming hold its own and even thrive in the years ahead?
In the words of Frederick Law Olmsted, the individual who helped define the American landscape, such places become “democracy’s common ground” and help us to “un-bow” when the pressures of work and family string us taut.

Making sure these notions endure is surely a measure of our humanity. In such expressions as the way we plant shrubs and lay out yards, place shade trees along roads and design our parks, we begin to bridge the ambiguities that separate us as humans from the natural state and are the better for it.

Pause for a moment, now, and cast a glance back across time before we look ahead. For the early residents of Wellesley and Weston, trees were everything. From them shelter was built for man and beast and hearths were filled with endless cords of wood, the main defense against the savage cold of winter.

From local forests, barrel staves, intended for the Caribbean trade, the first significant local export product of the 18th century, were cut. Maple, chestnut, cherry, ash, and walnut went to Boston’s furniture makers. The bark of hemlock and oak found use in the tanneries in the “Needham Leg,” whose products in turn supplied the burgeoning shoe industry of nearby Natick.

Tree cutting created the pasturage that was vital to the intensive agriculture practiced by the earliest settlers in these parts. Indeed, dairy herds grazed along South Avenue and Wellesley Street in Weston from the 1600s right into the 1950s.

By the middle of the 19th century, the land hereabouts and throughout the state was virtually clear-cut. Local trees, felled and lightly seasoned, were fair game for the ravenous wood-burning trains that first began to chug through Wellesley in the 1830s, heading for Worcester to the west. And then, surprisingly, the trees experienced a renaissance. After the Civil War, coal began to take the place of wood, both for fueling trains and heating homes. Then deep economic depressions in 1873 and 1893 dried up cash credit, bankrupting local farmers.

Mechanical refrigeration killed the output of local ice ponds and further marginalized the thousands of small farms that provided the Boston and Worcester markets with fruit and produce. Fields lay fallow at the dawning of the 20th century and the harbingers of second growth–pine and oak–staged a wary advance into territory unoccupied by trees since colonial days.

A group of Boston businessmen, seeking the quiet comforts and pastoral beauty of the countryside, while wishing to retain easy access to their in-town offices, hit upon the idea of buying up Weston farms as vacation retreats. Whatever their private philosophies, the early estate owners who came to Weston in the 1880s and ‘90s held one thing in common: a fondness for green space and a pastoral life style.

Such tastes prevail to this day in Weston, in large part thanks to two great benefactors whose love of forest, field, and trail inspire reverence in all who know their names.
Marion Case, heiress to one of the great estate families and a central figure in defining the collective character of Weston, founded Hilltop Farm in the1900s to ensure that town youth gained useful employment and good social values through agricultural work.

Such activity, combined with periodic progress reports in the form of Case’s famous “green books,” imbued generations of Weston’s youth with a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the benefits to be gained from growing one’s own food. It was values-based education at its very best.

The surest proof of the town’s reverence for Case and the enduring result of her efforts can be found in a unanimous vote at Weston Town Meeting in the late fall of 2006. There, with almost 800 present, a decision was made to purchase the Case Estates, originally willed to Harvard and its Arboretum.

On completion of the purchase, Weston will hold over 2400 acres of conservation land, most of it forested, all crisscrossed by over 100 miles of trails. These trails are the result of efforts initiated by a transplanted English surgeon named William Elliston, who helped found the Weston Forest and Trail Association in the 1950s. To this day, the Association stewards Weston’s trail system and a substantial portion of the town’s open space.

Land’s Sake, the spiritual heir of Case’s efforts, ensures that the spirit she engendered lives on in opportunities for Weston youth to farm, make maple syrup, and periodically cull town forests for firewood. Pam Fox’s monumental history of Weston, Farm Town To Suburb, chronicles this green saga while recording in superb detail the larger composite picture of a great community.

Wellesley has a different story to tell: The culture of refinement that has long characterized the town arrived in the person of Henry Hollis Hunnewell in 1843. Two years before Hunnewell’s arrival by train in “West Needham,” Andrew Jackson Downing published the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. The volume shaped the green values of the antebellum generation, including significant local personalities in what would eventually become the conservation movement and the allied profession of landscape design. A surprising number were friends or acquaintances of Henry Hollis Hunnewell.

Olmsted and his junior partner, Charles Eliot (designer of Greater Boston’s metropolitan parklands system), along with Charles Sprague Sargent (the first director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum), made regular trips to Wellesley. Their friend, the incomparable H.H. Richardson, came to build Wellesley’s often-imitated railway stations. All had Hunnewell connections.

Hunnewell’s civic spirit and generosity clearly set a tone that endures. Early developers, capitalizing on Wellesley’s sterling reputation and convenient location astride the Worcester Turnpike, built widely and well, leaving room for trees whenever possible. Uniform zoning laws, among the first in the country, ensured that lot sizes and street plantings would create a permanent, well-knit tree canopy in what was to become an otherwise densely populated suburban town.

Having peered into the past, perhaps now we might pause in present time, then glance into the future.

First, there is a simple fact to note: Both Wellesley and Weston benefit from the Community Preservation Act in full measure, with each adding six percent of their respective annual budgets to local greenspace initiatives, historic preservation, and affordable housing. But still, the two towns have distinct identities.

In Weston, George Bates, a figure of long-standing devotion to the town’s Forest and Trails Association and chair of its conservation commission, keeps an eye on a trail system threading through public and private fields and woodlands. Unrestrained dog-walking—packs of a dozen or more casually supervised by professional walkers—worries him to the extent that bylaws to curb the custom are under active consideration.

Nina Danforth is an open space consultant employed by both Wellesley and Weston. She notes that “Wellesley is much more formal in its street design while Weston’s emphasis is on forestland and agricultural preservation.”

Cricket Vlass, Wellesley’s landscape designer, confirms her impression: “We have seventy landscaped traffic islands,” she says, “and a budget for new tree planting every year.” Her colleague, Mike Quinn, Wellesley’s park and tree supervisor, directs a staff of four arborists who are busy throughout the year.

Along with a staff and budget, Vlass and Quinn are empowered by town bylaws to plant new trees on private property no less than 20 feet from the street, a convention that allows plantings to avoid the assaults of road salt, compaction from foot traffic, and unschooled drivers, while thriving in a relatively open area.

“These programs have been in place since the 1940s,” says Vlass, “and show great foresight.”

“We have upwards of three thousand street trees in our inventory,” adds Quinn, “and another three thousand town trees on private property. Along with nine hundred acres of forest and parklands we have a reasonable (tree) canopy layer over this town.”

Like Weston, Wellesley has a substantial network of walking trails. Among the 25 miles of pathways crisscrossing the town is the Brook Path, a graceful, easy-to-negotiate trail artfully woven through residential neighborhoods stretching east from Dover Road. Held in particular esteem by residents of all ages for its easy access and shady stretches, it invites sociability while promoting good health and community interaction.

Neil Seaborn is chair of Wellesley’s Natural Resource Commission, a miniature EPA occupying a busy office in the basement of town hall (which itself is surrounded by a tree park donated by H.H. Hunnewell). He extols the value of trees, which, he notes, sequester the half ton or so of carbon dioxide emitted annually by the average car passing through Wellesley.

“Trees give off oxygen similar in volume to the carbon dioxide they absorb,” says Seaborn. “It’s tough on them (to survive the depredations of town life), but along with their ability to block noise and cold and provide cooling shade in the summer, I’d say it’s a pretty good deal,” he concludes.

Wellesley and Weston, while expressing their affection for forests and trees in different ways, share a unique green legacy. But such treasures, having taken long to store up, must be carefully protected.

The Weston Forest and Trail Association has upwards of 800 members and Wellesley’s Natural Resource Commission, an official town department, encompasses the workings of a veritable cornucopia of green-related committees and working groups too numerous to list here.

Do they assure a green future for the two towns? Even now Weston is fighting a court case that could result in huge, multi-story senior residences most feel are totally out of character with the town. Cricket Vlass worries that growing numbers of pest infestations are the shock troops of worse things to come in the vanguard of global warming.
“Private interest and the public good meet in our trees and greenspace,” says Brian Donahue, who has moved on from Land’s Sake to become a faculty member at nearby Brandeis University. “We need these resources to live responsible, decent lives in a world in touch with nature.”

Such ideals are easily grasped. Maintaining a hold on them, however, will continue to make demands on all the citizens of Wellesley and Weston.

Those residents of the two towns who value greenspace may wish to learn more of the unique resources and stewardship programs at their disposal. For more information on some of the groups mentioned in this article, these websites are notable:

Summer 2024