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Trees Give Hope in 2020

It’s been a hard year: tornado, derecho, pandemic. Yet in the midst of the many and varied losses, trees became a symbol of hope more than ever — a sign of brighter days ahead.

Business as Usual

2020 for the Cumberland River Compact began as usual, with trees. During the colder months, the Compact staff work to plant 1” caliper or greater trees through the Root Nashville campaign in partnership with Metro Nashville. While trees have so many benefits, they play an essential role in the health of our waters, making them an important part of the Compact’s work to enhance water quality.

The Root Nashville campaign focuses on creating an equitable tree canopy by planting in priority neighborhoods to improve the health and resilience of our communities. It wasn’t until the onset of a devastating tornado and a deadly pandemic that we really understood the important role that trees play in neighborhoods.

Planting season began with a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day planting event of 60 trees at Bordeaux Assisted Living, and a pilot of a new “Spread the Wealth of Nature” program at Hull Jackson Montessori and individual homes in North Nashville with affordable housing nonprofit, Be A Helping Hand.

On February 29th the Cumberland River Compact joined forces with Nashville SC and MLS Works to “plant the road to soccer” with the planting of over 90 trees along a section of Davidson St. that borders the Cumberland River. 

“We had no idea what was around the corner, but this February 29th event brought out hundreds of fun-loving volunteers and soccer fans, representation from our Mayor’s Office, Nashville SC, MLS Works, and even the rival team for that night’s kickoff game, Atlanta United FC. It was energizing to see so many supporters come together around this event. Not to mention having an awesome DJ, giveaways — and of course, the work of getting an iconic row of street trees planted along a popular bikeway corridor connecting downtown and Shelby Park,” said Cumberland River Compact Executive Director Mekayle Houghton. “It was an amazing way to conclude our tree-planting season, before all the change to come.”

March 3 Tornado 

Two days later on March 3, everything changed. A devastating tornado tore through Middle Tennessee including North Nashville, Germantown, Donelson, and East Nashville — just shy of the newly-planted Davidson Street trees. Miraculously, these newly planted trees were spared. But so many huge, established trees were lost — many in neighborhoods affected by the 1998 tornado, and also in historically underserved areas already identified as high-need for more trees. Creating an equitable canopy distribution was now even more imperative.

The Compact’s work paused as we saw the great challenges that impacted communities faced, challenges they are still facing today. Like you, our staff was eager to help in any way we could. In the weeks that followed we used our volunteer management experience to assist Hands on Nashville with site leadership as thousands of volunteers poured out to help with debris removal, supply donations, and damage assessment. 

As disaster response efforts were underway, the Cumberland River Compact worked to prepare for the long road of recovery. With the devastation to not only people and property but also the loss of mature trees that provide a great service to our communities, we knew that Root Nashville had to be ready to mobilize in a new way. 

Going Grassroots 

How inspiring it is to look back and remember all the different ways that communities and businesses supported each other during these difficult times. Volunteer “armies” formed to help wherever and however needed — all the while, learning how to do this work safely as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened. 

With so many residents spending more time at home, we noticed a huge increase in the number of people interested in tree plantings, cleanup events, and other ways to help their communities. Volunteer spirit has remained high, even if the volunteering looks a little different. 

One amazing outcome of this crisis was the development of the Root Nashville Neighborhood Planting Captain Program. We knew we needed to get trees planted in these priority neighborhoods, but how to coordinate so many households and orders? The rise of the planting captain program reminded us of the true power of grassroots organizing! Captains now work to reach out to neighbors about trees and coordinate with the Root Nashville team to organize plantings and logistics. Our 30 captains have played an essential role in the coordination and planting of over 1,000 trees within this planting season.

“Even in the middle of a pandemic, and many Nashvillians still in the rebuilding phase after the tornado, I got to know so many of my neighbors in a new way by spreading the word about free trees for their yards,” said Neighborhood Planting Captain Will Marth, one of several grassroots organizers in East Nashville.

Ecological Recovery During COVID-19

An incredibly generous donation of trees from McMinnville nursery, Hale & Hines, in June 2020 jumpstarted planting recovery efforts. This family-owned nursery donated 500 large 1.5”-caliper container trees to the Root Nashville campaign to be planted in impacted neighborhoods. While June is not typically tree-planting season, these were container trees and recipients committed to regular watering over the summer. With the help of planting captains, these trees were delivered and planted at no charge to homeowners.

Delivery from Hale & Hines! Trees were delivered to our staging area in Nashville before being delivered to their homes. 

Throughout the summer, Neighborhood Planting Captains all over the city continued to recruit their neighbors for free trees. By the planting season kick-off in mid-October, homes for over 1,300 new trees had been found. Root Nashville began planting events in Donelson, then moving to East Nashville, and wrapping up the calendar year in North Nashville. 

The March 3rd tornado blew over a tree in my backyard,” said North Nashville resident Judy Thompson. “That tree took out my car, my daughter’s car, and hit the rear of my home. I wanted a new tree because I loved sitting on my deck watching the birds and squirrels playing in it. I was so happy to get a new tree!”

North Nashville resident Judy, with a volunteer planter from TSU and her new thornless honeylocust, to replace a huge tree lost in the tornado.

Over 1,000 large 1”-caliper trees were delivered and planted, at no cost to residents, in just two short months — from mid-October through mid-December — by the Root Nashville team at the Cumberland River Compact. In a year full of tragedy and change, our connection to the earth and to each other has provided hope, and trees continue to teach us how to grow into the future. 

Adding Another Ring

With every year or life, trees add a new ring to their trunk. We too have a new ring. We’ve learned so much this year about the strength of our neighborhoods and feel inspired when we see supporters coming together to help shape their future — a future where healthy tree canopy and healthy waters are a part of every neighborhood. 

So the planting will continue! After all, we’re committed to helping plant 500,000 trees by 2050 through the Root Nashville campaign and won’t stop until the city gets there. The current tree-planting season continues into early 2021, with plantings taking place from January through the end of March. Volunteer events will pick back up in mid-February so stay tuned to our newsletter for upcoming opportunities.