I grew up in Albany. When I was a kid, Mom would point out different kinds of trees to me (she had grown up on a farm). My interest grew, always with sensory attraction: the smell of maples in the spring, the sound of wind in pine branches, the color of fall leaves, all the forms and shapes.
Growing up in a reasonably dense city gave me a different perspective on trees when I went to Forestry school at Paul Smiths College. After graduating and taking internship positions with the US Forest Service, I returned to Albany. A volunteer project with the City led me to the then-new position of Assistant Forester, where my re-education in urban forestry began.
Our department found every urban tree issue there is: plumbing, overhead wires, bad practices, poor soils, vandalism, sidewalks, structures. And we made many of the mistakes, but learned and adjusted. One of my first—and ongoing—efforts was to increase tree species diversity; tree planting along streets, in parks, and on school grounds gave me my highest satisfaction in the position.
New York Heartwoods (NYH), located in Kingston, was founded in 2011 out of Megan Offner’s love of forests, passion for quality craftsmanship, and desire to create environmental and economic solutions in her community. She says, “We make sustainable furniture—sustainable in that our pieces are made to last, are efficient in their use of materials, and are made with wood from fallen and urban trees that would otherwise be landfilled, chipped, or burned.”
As the volunteer coordinator for the NYSDEC Urban Forestry Program, I do a lot. My job duties vary throughout the year, ranging from planning ReLeaf workshops to creating theme and lesson plans for the 5th Grade Arbor Day Poster Contest. Reviewing Tree City USA applications is one of my favorite parts of my job; it’s so much fun to see how different communities across the state get creative with how they celebrate Arbor Day.
Many of my favorite memories from growing up include being outdoors with my friends and family. Those memories, coupled with my fascination for rocks, led to me study Environmental Science at SUNY Albany. I was positive I was in the right field, but I was at a loss for what I wanted to do after college. I spent my winter breaks of junior and senior year in Ecuador with an organization called Global Student Embassy. We worked on reforestation and local sustainability projects—experiences that helped ignite a passion for working with communities and trees.
New York Tree Trust Development Director James Kaechele joined the Council Board last summer. The Council is lucky to have the contributions of this powerhouse who has achieved so much at 33! Here’s James in his own words.
From Scouts to Manhattan Forester
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, I spent my childhood camping and scouting, eventually becoming an Eagle Scout. My family had a trailer in the White Mountains of New Hampshire on a lake; the best time of my childhood was being totally free to explore the forest.
When it was time to go to college in the early 2000s, I thought about going into plant biotech, but ultimately decided I didn’t want to work in a lab all day. I was always most interested in connecting people to the natural world. I majored in environmental and forest biology at SUNY ESF and while I was still a student, I worked at Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford, Connecticut as an educator and then interim education director.
When I graduated I continued working at the arboretum as the education director. I was in charge of both child and adult education, so I was doing things like teaching busloads of first graders about the parts of a flower and putting “bee goggles” on them so they could see what a bee sees. I organized classes on all sorts of interesting topics for adults in the evenings and did some of the teaching myself. It was an exciting and fun job.
New NYSUFC Board Member Joseph Charap is the Director of Horticulture and Curator for Green-Woodin Brooklyn. He’s also a new dad—his son Benjamin was born on September 3rd. Charap and his Green-Wood colleagues are transforming the historic landscape of this cemetery into an urban arboretum/public garden and expanding the ways people utilize its many resources.
I am a native New Yorker and I grew up in Lower Manhattan. After earning a BA and an MA in English Literature, I began working in a schizophrenia research lab. In my limited free-time, I assisted a professional gardener working in residential gardens around the city. It was during this time that I really began to connect with trees and other plants.
Through this work and other projects, it became clear to me that horticulture was my calling, but that I needed to get professional training. After a chance meeting with New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) Vice President Francisca Coelho in 2013, I applied to and was accepted into NYBG’s School of Professional Horticulture. During my second year of the program, I held an internship at Green-Wood, and upon graduating, I was hired as Curator of Plant Collections. In January of 2017, I was made Director of Horticulture at Green-Wood.
Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838 as one of the earliest “rural cemeteries.” It’s an accredited Level II Arboretum, occupying 478 acres in Brooklyn. We believe we will achieve Level III Accreditation within the next five years, as we continue to diversify our tree and shrub collection. [Level III arboreta have at least 500 species of woody plants, employ a collections curator, have substantial educational programming, collaborate with other arboreta, publicize their collections, and actively participate in tree science and conservation.]
Andrew Newman joined the Council Board last summer. He is Senior Correspondence Liaison for the Brooklyn Borough Commissioner’s Office.
Can you tell us about your childhood influences that foreshadowed getting interested in arboriculture and urban forestry? Andrew Newman: Growing up in Brooklyn, Prospect Park was always my big, open backyard. From a very young age, I volunteered for sapling planting efforts and learned about wildlife habitats from local park rangers. I have family from Palmyra, New York (outside Rochester) whose property was covered with walnut, oak, and conifers so that growing up, I became well acquainted with trees. After studying the intersection of religious traditions and the environment as well as the deep ecology movement, I decided I was interested in pursuing a career that would marry public service, public engagement, and nature.
What was your educational trajectory leading to arboriculture and urban forestry? AN: With degrees in Religion and Classics and Clinical Psychology, mine was a circuitous route to urban forestry! Most of my educational experience has been on the job and in classes provided by NYC Parks, Trees New York, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and other local organizations. Learning about forest ecosystems from experts in the field has been especially helpful.
Please tell us about your internship experience, including anything surprising. Abigail Mahoney: I began the Urban and Community Forestry internship at NYSDEC shortly after completing my junior year at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in the environmental policy, planning, and law program. As someone who is not specifically a forestry student, I had hoped this internship would expose me to new concepts and varying points of view while appealing to my existing interests.
Drew Rojek has been the Keuka College Grounds Manager for just over a year. With Rojek’s leadership, the College recently celebrated its first year as a Tree Campus USA, one of just 22 in the state of New York. Originally from Buffalo, Rojek lives in Canandaigua with his wife Dana and two daughters—Ava, 4, and Lainey, 18 months.
Rojek received his BS in Biology from Gannon University in Erie, PA, and his Master of Landscape Architecture from Morgan State University (MSU) in Baltimore, MD. While pursuing the latter, he worked on the grounds department of MSU and after graduation worked for a design-build company as an LA doing mostly residential design work.
Can you tell us about your childhood influences that foreshadowed getting interested in urban forestry? Navé Strauss: I grew up in suburban Long Island with a father who is an arborist. My parents are both strong advocates of being outside and enjoying nature, and my father’s profession supplemented my relationship with the outdoors, peppering it with knowledge of trees and insects by default. I never thought I would end up an arborist, and didn’t know I’d be leading an incredible tree planting program in my home city, but here I am and I’m extremely humbled by the opportunity to serve and share my experience, just as my father did and does with me.
Please tell us about your educational and career trajectories. NS: I graduated from St Lawrence University in Canton NY in 2008 with a Bachelor’s in Environmental Studies and an emphasis in Forestry. I started as a forester with NYC Parks soon thereafter in early 2009 and have continued my trajectory ever since, becoming a senior forester in 2014 and then director of the street tree planting program as of April 2016.
What do you enjoy so far about your current position? What are some challenges? NS: I love the challenges themselves—the juxtaposition between the natural and built environs and the cultural diversity of the City that leads to many good conversations with residents who are passionate about trees—or about not having trees. In all, I enjoy the complexity of the tasks at hand, how they fold into our mission, and navigating the ship while learning from my superiors, peers, and staff.
What are a few things people might be surprised to know about street tree planting in NYC? NS: We plant over 150 unique cultivars of trees in our public rights-of-way on an annual basis! That is an insane number, and we are extremely proud of our accomplishments in helping to diversify the City’s urban forest.
What is your ultimate vision for the NYC street tree planting program? NS: To continue the upward arch of being the best street tree planting program in the world and to assure each and every New Yorker that every tree being planted is done so with every consideration in mind, even the ones they haven’t thought of (leave that to us). Finally, to know that each tree is set up to survive and thrive after our two-year establishment period has ended.
What are your interests in your free time? NS: Cooking, reading, spending time with my loved ones, and playing guitar. I have many guitars, and I recognize that it’s a problem, but I am not ready to stop collecting.
Anything else you want to be sure to share? NS: Talking to New Yorkers about the best slice of pizza is risky business—be prepared to hunker down and listen. Is it the sauce, the dough, the cheese, or the toppings? Many differ, even those who agree on politics.
NYSUFC Board Member Rachel Holmes is the coordinator of The Nature Conservancy’s urban forestry program called Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities. She is also a Flamenco dancer and a wildland firefighter (read on!).
Can you tell us about your childhood influences that foreshadowed getting interested in urban forestry? Rachel Holmes: I grew up in Clifton, New Jersey on a street that was lined with a diverse mix of mature trees that had been planted by a previous generation of homeowners. I remember riding my bike over heaved sidewalks and imagining that I was racing in a BMX course. When I was in fifth grade, the town decided to redo all the sidewalks. Rather than work around the trees, they took them all down! I actually went outside to yell at the men removing the trees. Concerned for my safety, my Mom actually took me away because I think she was afraid I would throw myself in between the workers and the trees.
I was driven away from my tree-lined street and came back to … nothing. It was a pretty painful experience and at the same time, a seminal moment in my appreciation of trees. Because I had been surrounded by trees in my early childhood, I knew what I was missing when they were taken down. It is important to me now to do what I can to help prevent other people from experiencing this.
The City replaced some of the trees with flowering pears, many of which came down in storms, including ours. A few years ago, I helped my parents pick out a good specimen of eastern redbud that is doing really well; my Mom and Dad frequently text me photos of it.
While I gained an early appreciation for urban nature, I was fortunate to experience what some would call the “wild” at a much bigger scale. Starting in sixth grade, I worked on my aunt and uncle’s ranch in Colorado, learning the ins and outs of ranch management including Western horsemanship. The ranch abutted Pike National Forest which is where I was first exposed to managed forests. This is also where I first witnessed the impacts of wildfire on forest ecosystems.