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Cori Brown: My love for trees has lasted a lifetime | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

Do you have a Maryland big tree champion in your yard?

I love trees. I remember two trees in particular when I was growing up in Pennsylvania. One was a dogwood in front of our house. It was an old one that bloomed profusely and made our house look so beautiful in the springtime. The other was a neighbor’s silver maple.

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It was huge from my perspective as a child and I loved how it shaded the sidewalk and offered respite on a hot summer day.

As I got older and traveled the world, I grew to appreciate trees even more. I think about places like the volcanic park on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, huge savannas in South Africa and even our own mid-West heartland where I could see the landscape for miles with no trees in sight. It seemed like the horizons went on forever but the lack of trees made all these places feel so barren and lonely to me.

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When I moved to Carroll County 35 years ago, I made it my mission to fill our modest six-acre property with lots of trees. Old farm fields begged to become a mini-forest. A few stately old trees already on the property helped me visualize what the future could hold.

Fast forward to today, and these same fields are now dotted with a variety of trees, many of them bearing seeds and fruits for birds and other wildlife. It’s the old trees though, that make me happiest.

Over the years, I lost a few special ones like an English walnut, a willow and a boxelder, but several elder statesmen continue to thrive. They are quite a good size now, perhaps even older than our 109-year-old house, and include a white pine, two spruces, and a white mulberry.

Their significant size prompted me to contact my neighbor and friend Geary Schwemmer. His wife Sharon is my best birding buddy. She mentioned how he was now involved in the Maryland Big Tree Program after retiring from a 42-year career as a research engineer and later a private contractor for NASA.

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Geary’s “second” career resulted from information he saw in a Maryland Department of Natural Resources newsletter. It explained that the purpose of the Maryland Big Tree program is, “to identify the largest trees of each species in Maryland.  Besides the obvious purpose of identification, the program helps identify potential genetic improvements and species range and reproduction.”

He started checking out some of the nearby publicly accessible trees on the Maryland Big Tree Registry. One tree led to another and soon he was looking up trees everywhere he went. When he realized there were errors in some of the data, he contacted program coordinators John Bennett and Joli McCathran, who mentioned that Carroll County could use some help finding and nominating big trees in the county.

Here was a match made in heaven with Geary, at 6-foot-8, looking for big trees that shared the same rarefied air that he did!

Geary visited our yard in November 2020 and took all the necessary measurements to determine if we truly had some trees worthy of registration. A month later, the Maryland Big Tree Program notified us that one of our Norway spruces, the white pine and the white mulberry are now Carroll County champions! It’s all part of their effort to “recognize tree owners as good stewards of trees and to educate citizens about the importance of trees in our lives.”

I followed up with Geary earlier this month via an email interview to find out more about the program. I asked him why we should even care about trees. He replied, “We cannot not exist without plants on this planet. The loss of forests worldwide has contributed to acceleration of climate change that we are facing. Forests are one of the most efficient consumers of carbon dioxide, more so than man’s agricultural plantings. In addition, trees provide us with more human commodities and consumables than any other resource on earth. So maintaining a healthy and robust forest ecology is of great benefit to human kind.”

Geary Schwemmer, Carroll County’s on-the-ground point man for the Maryland Big Tree program, checks out a potential champion tree.
Geary Schwemmer, Carroll County’s on-the-ground point man for the Maryland Big Tree program, checks out a potential champion tree. (Cori Brown Photo)

I am humbled to have several county champions on our property but Geary noted that Carroll County has five state champion trees, too. They include a sugar maple, Hinoki cypress, umbrella magnolia, saucer magnolia, and black mulberry. The black mulberry is even more prestigious in that it is also a national champion.

As Carroll County’s man on the ground for the Maryland Big Tree program, Geary’s goal is to increase the county’s recognition of big trees in the state, but to do that he needs everyone’s help. Sometimes it’s tough to see big trees from the road, especially in forested areas, not to mention that he can only access potential candidate trees with a property owner’s permission.

Here’s a shout out to all of you that if you think you have a possible Maryland Big Tree candidate, please get in touch at https://www.mdbigtrees.info/ and get your tree the credit that it deserves. If you are concerned that people will visit your tree without your permission, be aware that Maryland Big Trees does not publish the location of trees on private property.

I concluded my informal interview with Geary by asking him if he could be a tree, what kind would he be. Not surprisingly, he said, “I’ve always loved Beech trees, but I’m not sure I would like children carving their initials in my skin. Tulip (Yellow) poplars are another favorite because they grow so straight and tall (like me I hope). But truth be told, I am smitten with Sequoias. Nothing on the east coast rivals them for size, longevity, and presence. Their smell is awesome too. If you’ve been to any of their surviving groves in California, you know what I mean. But most of all, I’d want to be a tree that people loved.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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