Welcome to the Legacy Trees Project

Trees have stories, just like the rest of us.

The aerial photograph above shows the landscape of Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center (outlined in purple) as it looked in 1952, when the property was part of a mental institution, the Boston State Hospital. (To help orient you, the entrance to the sanctuary from Walk Hill Street is on the lower left of the photo, while Morton Street is just visible in the upper right corner.) Carefully maintained by the institution, the landscape was much more open than it is today – grassy areas were mowed, brush and other unwanted vegetation were controlled, roads and pathways were kept clear; even the marshy areas had been filled in for agricultural purposes earlier in the century. In such a cleared and open landscape, individual trees stand out prominently, each with its own identity, story, and purpose.  

As you walk around the grounds of the Boston Nature Center today, you’ll meet a number of these remarkable trees – weathered residents who were born, grew, and lived there, and whose lives have intersected in myriad ways with the other residents of the place over time, human and otherwise. A few of these “Legacy Trees” were there before the state hospital, but most of them were carefully chosen by hospital landscapers to contribute to the mental and bodily health and well being of hospital residents, staff, and visitors – just as they can contribute to the health and happiness of the BNC’s visitors and staff today. Moreover, like all large trees (indeed all living things), these trees live in ecological relationship with their surroundings and the larger world, contributing what are termed “ecosystem services” – providing habitat for birds, insects, and small mammals; interacting with fungi, lichens, and microorganisms in the soil; capturing carbon and replenishing oxygen in the air; moderating water flow and storm runoff; shading buildings and thus helping conserve energy, and so on. At the same time, some of the trees in the photograph above aren’t there anymore, having fallen to disease, damage, old age, or the needs of new construction; but through historical research and careful observation, we can learn the stories and discern the continuing presence of these “Ghost Trees” in the shape of the landscape today.

The Legacy Trees project seeks to tell the stories of these trees and to explore their roles in the changing landscape of the BNC, and in the lives of the people who have lived, worked, and played here. The map above focuses on the western half of the BNC (the side toward Walk Hill Street), showing the locations of living trees that we’ve identified as Legacy Trees (in green) and some of the important Ghost Trees no longer with us (in purple). (Note that the map, like the project as a whole, is still a work in progress – as is obvious from all the question marks.)

If you’ve been to the BNC, you might already have noticed some of these Legacy Trees – gnarled oaks and majestic maples, solitary spruces and hidden plane-trees – and wondered how old they were and why they were there; future posts on this blog will pinpoint their origins and outline their lives in as much detail as available historical evidence will allow. And even if you’ve never been to the BNC, trees of the same species are probably in your own favorite green place, maybe on your street or in your backyard – so these stories may inspire and help you to think about the lives of your own favorite trees.

NEXT UP: The Oaks of Oak Street