Thanksgiving’s barely nine days away, and this year, Christmas falls exactly 30 days later. Despite those looming holidays, as of Monday morning, the city of Roanoke has yet to procure a worthy tree for its big annual tree-lighting ceremony at Wells Fargo Plaza.
Usually, the downtown holiday icon is donated by a generous citizen, and the switch for its decorations gets flipped as part of the Dickens of a Christmas celebration. But so far this year, nobody has offered an appropriate Christmas tree, said Michael Clark, the city’s director of Parks and Recreation.
That’s OK, too, because a farsighted former city forester prepared for exactly such a contingency about 20 years ago. Dan Henry, who’s now retired, shrewdly planted a couple of Norway spruce saplings in Highland Park just in case city hall ever found itself in a Christmas-tree-finding pinch.
Apparently, though, Henry failed to anticipate that as the planted spruce inched skyward over two decades, fondness for it would grow among tree-hugging residents of Roanoke’s Old Southwest neighborhood. That’s what happened.
And then one day last week, a crew of city workers showed up to survey the spruce in question, which stands on the park’s Walnut Avenue side. Alert neighbors quickly learned the tree would be sacrificed for the holiday season.
From there, word spread like a pine needles in a stiff wind.
The first person to post about the outrage on Facebook was Mary Etta Rice-Way, who lives near the Old Southwest Park.
And that led to to an online petition on Change.org titled “Stop Highland Park Tree from being Roanoke’s Christmas Tree.”
It was initiated Sunday by Jane Gabrielle McCadden, a well-known local artist, musician and activist. On Change.org she penned two spare sentences about the controversy and included a photo of the spruce.
“Roanoke City continues with cutting a tree for the city’s Christmas tree. This time they will decimate our tree canopy by cutting down a tree from Highland Park!” she posted.
By Monday morning, when I learned of the petition, 152 people had signed it. By 1:30 p.m., the number had grown to 169. By 5 p.m. it had garnered 173 John Hancocks. And some signers left pointed comments.
“Cutting down trees for this is an offense against nature,” Cynthia Brown wrote in one.
“I think the tree should remain where it’s at so people can see the beauty for years to come not just a month at the most,” Carol Bowes chimed.
“Ridiculous to cut down a beautiful tree, in a park of all places, for this reason,” Matthew Togo added.
Members of the Roanoke City Council began getting some unhappy emails. One was from Bill McClure, who’s lived across Walnut Avenue from Highland Park for the past 27 years. He told me his kids, who are now adults, grew up watching the spruce grow.
McClure sent an email to all city council members Sunday night. Here’s a passage:
“We spend money on artwork, and other endeavors in the city, but why not keep a natural piece of art, keep our tree canopy, and BUY a tree like from a sustainable tree farm, and not cut a neighborhood natural wonder?” McClure wrote to each council member Sunday.
Then a series of amazing events occurred.
McClure said his email elicited quick and positive replies from Councilman Joe Cobb and Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd.
Cobb’s reply, which arrived in McClure’s inbox Monday before 10:30 a.m., noted that over the weekend Cobb brought the matter to the attention of City Manager Bob Cowell.
Cowell told Cobb that in light of the objections raised, “I have instructed the Parks Department to determine if an acceptable tree may be purchased,” if a suitable donation could not be found. Cowell even authorized spending up to $2,000 on the tree.
“The tree in the park will not be removed if it can be avoided by either finding an acceptable tree here in the City or by purchasing one,” he wrote to Cobb.
By Monday afternoon, employees in Parks and Recreation had located a 30-plus foot tall Norway spruce that was in somebody’s yard in Vinton. (Spruces and firs are the most desirable varieties, Clark explained, because the branches are strong enough to hold all the decorations.)
“We had looked at that tree a couple of years ago, but the house was for sale at that time,” Clark told me. The property has since sold, and the current owner agreed to donate the tree.
“Removal and transportation will take place a week from today,” Clark wrote in a Monday afternoon email.
All of the above happened so fast that Jane Gabrielle McCadden, who launched the Change.org petition Sunday, was unaware of the successful resolution by the time I got hold of her Monday afternoon.
“You’re kidding!” she said when I told her the news. “It’s so nice to get a quick success, once in awhile. This was a two-day effort and something happened. I’m just so grateful.”
The tree-lighting ceremony at Wells Fargo Plaza begins at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 3. The light switch for the tree gets flipped at 6:20. The public is invited.
And now you know the rest of the story — about how a preserve-the-tree petition saved the Highland Park spruce from a gang of holiday choppers.