I caught up with Joli McCathran last week while she was in an Eastern Shore forest looking for a particular tree.

Moments before I called her, she had found the Atlantic white cedar believed to be the largest of its species in Maryland. Or, more accurately, she found it again.

Sometime after it was catalogued 10 years ago as a champion because of its size, it was lost. Nobody could remember exactly where it was.

“We’ve never been able to find it, and I’m out here on the Eastern Shore and we just found it,” McCathran said, her happiness bouncing through the connection. “We just had no idea where it was.”

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I tell this story because as the water from Ophelia recedes, my attention turns to the trees — particularly, 12 mature trees. They surround my home at the end of the Annapolis Neck, a peninsula jutting out into the Chesapeake Bay just outside the city.

During the storm, the boughs groaned, showering twigs and leaves onto our roof, our cars and everything under their canopy. When winds really get strong — they gusted to 40 mph on Saturday — a limb will fall 60 or 70 feet to the street and shatter at the moment of impact.

With the ground soaked like it is this week after the storm, there’s a danger one of these giants will lose its toe-grip on the earth and succumb to the next high wind. My wonder and fascination with the energy of a storm is usually tempered by worries that a 1,000-pound branch will crash into our bedroom.

I’m not alone.

“Storms take down trees, but after a weekend like this, people get nervous that their trees might fall,” said Alderman Rob Savidge, arguably the trees’ greatest advocate on the City Council.

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Proactively cutting down individual trees has contributed to a 2% loss of the Annapolis tree cover in recent years, he said, although most of that was more directly done to clear the way for a few housing developments. Trees cover roughly 40% of Annapolis’ 7 square miles. Even an incremental loss is the wrong direction from meeting the city’s goal of 50% within the next 15 years.

It’s not just storms that have me thinking about trees. The black gum outside my window turned crimson and dropped most of its leafy coat at an alarmingly early date this year.

The sweetgums will be next. Their five-point emerald leaves still cluster high above the ground, but I found one of their spiky green fruits on the street last week. When one of these pointy spheres falls, it’s a warning that others will soon follow. Ophelia proved me right, and now my neighborhood is just tripping over them.

Sometime next month, the twin willow oaks in my backyard will likely send their knife-shaped leaves to the ground, helicoptering off the tree limbs at the slightest breeze.

Each tree has about 150,000 leaves — you can’t count them, but you calculate the total — and unless I want my home buried under a pile of russet, gold and red, I’ve got to do something. I mulch what I can and bag the rest for pickup.

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Trees are having a moment in the news right now because of climate change, the phenomenon driving storms like Ophelia and rising sea levels at City Dock. It’s why wood smoke from Canadian wildfires clogged the early summer air this year.

I like the idea that if you were to design the best machine to remove carbon from the atmosphere, a major contributor to global warming, you would have a tree. That’s the notion behind an effort to plant 1 trillion trees globally by 2030.

Maryland jumped in with the 5 Million Trees Initiative, created by the General Assembly and now in its second planting season. The hope is that adding all those trees will address not only climate change, but also Chesapeake Bay runoff pollution.

It might reverse the tide of tree loss in the state. An assessment recently released by the Chesapeake Bay Program found that despite widespread community plantings, Maryland lost 4,537 acres of trees in 2017 and 2018. Anne Arundel County was the biggest loser, with 1,710 acres cleared.

Both Annapolis and Anne Arundel have since passed laws aimed at stopping the loss.

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And now the trees have a lawyer.

The Chesapeake Bay Trust, a nonprofit group in Annapolis, will use a $17 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry program to create the Mid-Atlantic Environmental Justice Fund. It will do things like fund groups in low-income parts of Baltimore, the D.C. area, the Eastern Shore and Philadelphia that are working to add trees to address air pollution and counter the heat island effect, boost environmental job skills and add public green spaces.

That’s justice, Chesapeake Bay Trust Vice President Suzanne Armstrong said. I’m much more curious to in see what comes of the forestry “interventions” she said would be another mission of the fund.

McCathran has seen a lot of this coming. A retired forestry professional, she’s watched with interest as trees have become a focus for climate change work, Chesapeake Bay cleanup and urban plantings. Now retired, she measures trees as a volunteer for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and vice chair of the Maryland Forestry Board.

Giant trees are indexed in the Maryland Big Tree Program using a standard formula combining girth, height and breadth to come up with a score. The biggest of the big are designated a champion of their species. Trees on the list have to be documented once every 10 years or they get dropped.

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That’s why she was out looking for that Atlantic white cedar. When it was measured in 2013, the coordinates weren’t added to an online spreadsheet that serves as a guide to big trees.

As the deadline neared, McCathran, her husband and some friends have been looking. On Thursday, they found it in a forest near Salisbury.

“We would have been dropping this tree by Jan. 1st,” she said.

If you browse through the list, McCathran’s name is all over it. In Annapolis, she and a friend measured the city’s biggest tree — a massive yellow poplar at the edge of the Brewer Hill Cemetery on West Street.

It is 142 feet tall — equal to a 13-story building — and 18-feet around. Its canopy starts spreading out at 75 feet above the ground, and towers over lower trees for 101 feet. Only the Maryland State House is taller in Annapolis, rising 191 feet from the top of a hill overlooking the harbor to the peak of its wooden dome.

When you clamber halfway down the ravine where this tree is located to reach its base, you realize just how much its location masks its immensity. Standing next to it feels like bumping up against another world.

In a way, that’s true. We live in a time long after giant trees that filled a temperate Atlantic rainforest were logged and cleared for farms, homes and commerce.

The biggest tree ever documented in Maryland was the Wye Oak on the shore. It was 31 feet, 8 inches in circumference, 96-feet tall and had a crown 119 feet across. When it collapsed in a 2002 thunderstorm, tree experts estimated its age at more than 500 years.

Yellow poplars are a taller species, and can live to be 300 years old. The massive width of the tree at Brewer Hill is probably the best sign of just how old this tree is, maybe even serving witness to the earliest decades of the city’s history.

It probably was already tall when the Civil War began filling graves at the Annapolis National Cemetery across the ravine.

As I think about climate change and raking leaves, I realize this tree was a giant when my 12 sprouted a few miles away. It has survived storms unnumbered, and people, too.

So, take a moment to pay some attention to the trees.

“It’s a drop-dead gorgeous tree,” McCathran said. “It’s massive.”

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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