Friday, April 27, 2012

Celebrate Arbor Day – Chop Down a Tree!

This past Saturday, I was part of a city tree-planting group of volunteers that planted ten new trees on our block in South Philadelphia. One was alongside my house. Later that afternoon, I helped a different group of volunteers chainsaw a cluster of wild trees that had grown around and were crowding out a mausoleum at Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. I didn’t really see the irony in this until I noticed on my calendar that Arbor Day (April 27, 2012), our national tree-planting holiday, was less than a week away!

Excavating mausoleum from arboreal prison
I arrived late at Mount Moriah that Saturday, due to my earlier planting commitment. One group of volunteers had just gone, while a half-dozen diehards continued the hard work. All the grasses and vines had been cleared from the right side of the structure, and several trees had been downed from the left side. Over the next few hours, we chainsawed about a half-dozen more trees, dragged them out of the thicket with a small tractor, and hacked all the branches off them (so they could later be chipped by a tree-cutting service).

I was amazed at the number of people in both groups – the cutters now, the planters earlier. The drive, dedication, and the amount of energy these people directed toward their goal was wonderful and infectious. Arbor Day, forward and reverse!

From the City of Philadelphia website:

Keep Philadelphia and your community beautiful, plant a tree.
Trees bring a multitude of benefits ranging from decreased air pollution, stormwater runoff and extreme temperature days to increased property values, carbon sequestration and quality of life.
Many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods lack adequate tree cover. GreenPlan calls for Philadelphia’s tree canopy to increase to 30 percent in every neighborhood by 2025. To support this goal, Greenworks Philadelphia sets a target of planting 300,000 trees by 2015. It’s an ambitious goal, but a goal we can strive for together as a City.
Trees in summer offer cover for spray-painting vandals
While on one hand it seems that the city is attempting to reach a place Carlos Casteneda only dreams about, it also sponsors a project to hack out an abandoned cemetery from its jungle confines. The former to promote life, the latter to, well, celebrate life.

Mt. Moriah Cemetery at sunset
Both endeavors had merit. One part of the city needs to be greener, the other, well, less green.  Now don’t get me wrong – I’m the world’s biggest fan of cemetery trees. They can add a certain je ne sais quoi to a photograph as a spooky compositional element that is hard to beat. However, Mount  Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philly is simply a jungle. After thirty or more years of unrestricted florid overgrowth, the place cannot be enjoyed as it was meant to by its Victorian landscapers and designers.

As the cemetery has been abandoned by its legal owners, groups of concerned citizens have taken it upon themselves to thin out the thousands of random trees and keep the weeds and vines cut. It’s going to take a lot of work to repair the damage to the monuments and other structures that the trees have wrought, but first the trees must be removed.  Four hundred acres of wild vegetation is quite a challenge. The photos at right and at the top of this article are fairly common sights in the heavily-wooded sections of the cemetery.

Cut trees at Atkins mausoluem
Which is funny when you think about the overgrowth – when you try to purposely grow plants, they seem to just have a death wish. You try to keep that azalea alive or nurse the insect-ridden holly back to health and you swear they just want to die! You feel as though you’re just prolonging their agony, keeping them going by artificial means. For instance, I know I’ll be fertilizing and watering the new tree alongside my house for the next year, hoping the roots will take hold. However, there’s every possibility that it could just shrivel up and die. Worse yet, the jackass vandals who set a candle burning on the roof of my convertible may just rip the branches off this tree. As for the cemetery tree-clearing, there’s every possibility that once the mausoleums and monuments at Moriah are exposed, vandals may tag them with spray paint. All you can do is the best you can do.

Pulling cut trees with tractor and chains
What may save the cemetery, however, is the simple fact that more people are spending time there. If vandals see other people, they’re less likely to commit criminal acts. Also, fewer trees mean less cover for the criminal element (see my previous blogs listed at the end of this article for further reading), so thinning out the trees may result in less defacement and damage.

From the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery website:

Next Mount Moriah Volunteer Cleanup – May 19, 2012
Join the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery on May 19th from 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM for a cleanup event at the cemetery. Friends, relatives, historians and anyone interested in Mount Moriah Cemetery are asked to meet at the Yeadon entrance to the cemetery on Cobbs Creek Parkway starting at 8:00 AM.

Further Reading (Mount Moriah blog postings by Ed Snyder):

Beginning to Die - The Strange State of Mt. Moriah Cemetery

No One Hears an Abandoned Cemetery Scream

Mount Moriah Cemetery, on the Cusp

Pit Bulls, Deer Ticks, and Poison Ivy – The Allure of the Abandoned Cemetery

Mt.Moriah Cemetery Rising from the Dead?


  1. The picture of the cemetery at sunset is absolutely breath taking. The shadow produced by the branches just hangin' out, is amazing.

    -Carlos Hernandez