By Sydney Sunna
Often regarded as the ‘City in the Forest’, Atlanta’s rich urban forestry provides the community with countless economic, environmental, and health benefits. Lush tree canopies mitigate air pollution, cool down sidewalks and buildings, obviate flood damage, and augment residential and retail property value. Emory University, whose verdant virtues earned its campus the title of “Tree Campus USA” by the Arbor Day Foundation, appreciates the benefits sowed by the hands of Atlanta’s arborists. Despite these adorned titles, a recent report from the U.S. Forest Service reveals that Georgia is leading the nation in tree loss. The study, published by Nowak and Greenfield (2018), found that Georgia lost an average of 18,000 acres of urban tree coverage each year from 2008 and 2014. This rate of depletion of Georgia’s forests is unmatched by any other state in the nation (Nowak and Greenfield, 2018). According to the Georgia Forestry Commission, the main factors driving deforestation include urban development, drought, and insects like the southern pine beetle. Preservation of Atlanta’s beloved greenspaces demands a consistent, concerted, community effort addressing those factors.
Several times each year, the student-led organization, GDBBS Involved in Volunteerism at Emory (GIVE), coordinates with the non-profit group Trees Atlanta to engage its students in protecting green spaces in the community beyond the campus. The mission of Trees Atlanta is to protect and improve Atlanta’s urban forest by means of educating the public, planting trees, and removing invasive species. In the thirty years since its establishment, this non-profit organization has planted 113,000 trees, thanks in part to a growing number of community volunteers. For this fall’s annual day of service, the GIVE team embarked to Brook Run Park to plant saplings in sparse areas of the estate. Relishing the opportunity to spend a Saturday morning outside for a study break, my neuroscience colleagues and I eagerly enlisted.
As we pulled into the parking lot on that crisp bright fall morning, we perused the farmer's market and helped ourselves to the light breakfast provided by GIVE. After outfitting ourselves with durable gloves and shovels, we joined dozens of volunteers from all over the greater Atlanta area, including students from Morehouse College, students from Emory University, and regular volunteers of Trees Atlanta. After filling up 72 barrels of mulch in under fifteen minutes and hauling them onto a trailer, we all assembled around the Trees Atlanta guide to learn how to plant a sapling. Caitlin Sojka, a fellow first-year neuroscience doctoral student, and I received the instruction with attention and appreciation, as neither of us had ever planted a tree before. The instructions were simple enough: dig a hole in the shape of a cereal bowl with a depth not exceeding the top roots of the tree, bang on the makeshift tree planter to loosen up the dirt and roots, pull out the tree and massage the roots to remove old dirt, poke holes in the side of the “cereal bowl” in the soil, place the tree inside, and fill up the bowl with mulch before watering. The instructor was a skilled presenter, as he gave detailed and concrete advice such as “Dig a hole the diameter of your shovel shaft, shaped like a cereal bowl” and “Shovels are good for digging, while mattocks are useful for cutting”. After the demonstration, we descended upon a remote region of the park that lay beyond an expanse of green lawn.
A plot of barren land interrupted an array of trees, where we found more than 70 saplings awaiting a new home. Thick carpets of wet pine needles covered the stubborn maroon clay beneath. As we took to the landscape, we broke off into groups of around three or four and set to work. My group consisted of people from my first-year neuroscience cohort. As we had only known each other for two months up until this point, this experience was one of our first opportunities to get to know each other outside of the program. Arguably more attuned to the arbors of dendrites than flora, we tentatively approached a sapling. Puzzled, we covertly looked to the more seasoned volunteers for guidance on how to start. Mumbled questions hung in the air: “So should we just… start digging anywhere then?”, “Yeah, I think so?”, “Is this wide enough, you think?” Adam Hamilton, who had experience planting trees, hopped on the shovel step and the blade cut into the earth. Just like that, we began to dig the first hole. Amused by the enthusiasm of his “jack hammer” approach, Sojka doubled over laughing. Sherry Ye and Thomas Shiu helped liberate the tree from its temporary container and began whittling away at the old soil. After we securely embedded the trees in their new mulch, we watered them each with a gallon of clean water. Elated by our accomplishments, we traded tree selfies with volunteers nearby before starting on another plot.
Our group alone planted five trees that morning. Sherry and I triumphantly stood beside one of our saplings, the Cornus florida, more commonly known as Cherokee Princess Flowering Dogwood; the newest resident of Brook Run Park. I dropped a pin in my Google Maps App to mark where the princess was, so that we could monitor the health and growth of our tree upon returning to the park. As a team, we planted more than 70 trees in the course of a few hours. The good company, vivid sunshine, and hard work left me with a feeling of happiness and fulfillment that I won’t soon forget. It was a wonderful way to become more acquainted with my neuroscience peers as we explored the greater Atlanta area, learned a new skill together, and participated in something truly impactful. After the last sapling was planted, we made our way back to campus for some free food. After a day of friendship and forestation, the Trees Atlanta NeighborWoods Campaign has certainly gained a few new avid adherents.
Nowak D, Greenfield E (2018) Declining Urban and Community Tree Cover in the United States.