Contributing Writer: Ashley Ely, Class of 2024, North Rockland High School UAccessLife

The first thing the assembled audience heard was the North Rockland Symphony Orchestra playing music to commemorate the planting of the Inclusion Tree. For an early celebration of Arbor Day, North Rockland High School held a tree planting ceremony at the front entrance of the building at 9am on April 19th. The ceremony commemorated the planting of an ivory silk lilac sapling gifted through a Tree Campus K-12 Grant from the New York State Urban Forestry Council.

First, the school’s orchestra, conducted by Mr. John Björkman, presented a beautiful piece titled Lord of the Dance. The performance represented multiple students collaborating as musicians. Music is very important as it helps connect our community, and it set the tone for the program that followed.

In our ceremony, students took the lead. As current president of UAccessLife, I introduced the event.

UAccessLife is a club that was created two years ago to advocate for accessibility for everyone  in our community. This tree planting is beneficial as it will provide a space for students to connect through nature therapy and also to enjoy the scenery overall. Placing the lilac tree next to the main entrance of the building allows for easy accessibility for anyone to view the tree and its future blossoming flowers.

The tree planting event also provided educational opportunities to the many science classes offered at North Rockland.

North Rockland Tree Planting Planners
North Rockland Symphony Orchestra
Celebration Attendees
Planting the Lilac
North Rockland Buildings and Grounds Staff

We had a series of poems read by North Rockland students. First, Rowan Belliot (Class of ‘24), secretary of UAccessLife, recited a poem titled Instructions on Not Giving Up by Ada Limon. The poem describes the resilience of trees and how it is important to emulate that quality in ourselves. Like trees, if we work together as a community and remain resilient toward life’s challenges, we will rise and blossom. Budding North Rockland poet Damien Duesing (Class of ‘25) read an original poem, I Remember A Tree (reprinted below). Damien’s poem is a moving and moody reflection on the natural world’s ways of knowing and the ancient knowledge in nature.

The tree planting was led by Holly Sten (Class of 2026). She thanked all members of the community for their contributions to North Rockland, including Mrs. DaPonte, UAccessLife members,  North Rockland’s Best Buddies club, and AccessNR. Members from each group were invited to grab a shovel and dig some dirt into the tree in order to symbolize how North Rockland can join together as a community to take care of our environment and each other.

Our event featured closing remarks from Ms. Julia Borawski and Ms. Meaghan Dufek-Varieur, who have served as co-advisors for UAccessLife and spent weeks planning this event. Finally, Mr. Brutus’s class, Ms. Cosman’s class, Ms. Siddi’s class and Mr. Zecchin’s class from North Rockland’s self-contained special education program performed Let It Grow. This was a fun way to conclude and  ended the ceremony on a high note. It left many people realizing the importance of trees in our environment as everyone joined together to sing and observe our celebration of nature.

The ceremony highlighted the importance of the incorporation of nature in the lives of students and faculty here at North Rockland. As we enter the warmer weather, the addition of this tree provides a sense of scenery and is a way to welcome students who enter North Rockland High School. Placed right in front of the school, it allows people to easily have access to nature and further allows them to enjoy the beauty of nature here at North Rockland.

Having everyone join together to celebrate this event provided a sense of inclusion. The ceremony allowed all students regardless of one’s background or abilities to come together for equality and nature appreciation. UAccessLife was grateful to be able to host this celebration of inclusion and acceptance.

The event would not have been made possible without a grant received from NYSUFC.  A lot of gratitude goes toward mentor Ms. Jean Zimmerman, who advised North Rockland on the planting of this tree. We also appreciate the many other adults who made the planting possible for us: our principal, including Ms. Lauren DaPonte, our superintendent, Dr. Kris Felicello, our Board of Education and our Buildings and Grounds Staff. They have invested in our natural spaces, our access to our education and our growth as young adults, and we are grateful.

I Remember A Tree
—Damien Duesing

There is a tree shared by my neighbors and I
In Autumn, its leaves scatter over either side of our white picket fence
An oak, I think. I don’t know my trees.
The trees know me, though.

I believe this tree may be quite wise
Like in the books the neighbors used to read to their toddler
Under the tree’s ample shade
While the boy babbled along.

A kind tree, perhaps? A giving tree? Or maybe my neighbors have a Secret Garden!
I’m sure the tree knows more than I
About its life, its home, its story.
After all, the neighbor boy’s dog seems to look at it funny.

As that toddler grew, so did his dog
And so did the tree.
It’s no redwood, I know. But I’m sure it holds memories like a forest,
Decades of laughter wisping on the blue wind.

Some days, a squirrel scurries up the tree
Running from the now-grown and growling dog
With his best friend chasing after,
His broken leash in hand.

The dog scratches at the poor old tree’s bark
Whining after the squirrel
Now tucked safely away in his tree hole
Storing the tree’s acorns.

As the dog circles the tree
The boy finally catches up, panting like his pet.
He leans against the rough bark and
Sinks down to rest among the maze of roots.

The dog snorts, giving up his patrol of the squirrel
To rest his head on his best friend’s lap.
The boy lets out a puff of laughter, shaking his head
(The tree remembers).

No matter how long it’s been, the boy always says
That dog will never learn to stop chasing squirrels.
Of course, the tree knows this
The tree knows that best friends can’t train each other properly.

It has more rings than the boy’s grandmother has wrinkles
The tree must know everything.
About these homes.
About the lives within them.

It holds tight to the ground
Its roots grow, spread, thicken.
Its world is just the yards it can see
The people within them.

But it must know more than I.
In ends.
In beginnings.
In memories.