In the News: First Light Funeral

Farewell, old friend by Sean Flynn, originally published in The Newport Daily News, April 14, 2016

NEWPORT, R.I. — Up to 300 people crowded around the multicolor-lighted fernleaf European beech tree in front of the Newport Art Museum on Thursday night to say goodbye to the beloved tree that is expected to be cut down in early May. The number of people attracted to what was billed as a “First Light Funeral” seemed to surprise everyone. “I’m thrilled by the turnout,” said Norah Diedrich, the museum’s executive director. “Look at all the groups that came together. It’s a testament to what Newport is capable of. There are a lot of people here new to the museum.”

The Salve University Jazz Band accompanied the celebratory speeches on the lawn and attendees enjoyed free admission to the museum’s Art After Dark event that takes place the first Thursday of every month. “To have a New Orleans-style funeral to highlight what is happening to the city’s beech trees is a wonderful idea,” said Scott Wheeler, the city’s arborist and supervisor of buildings and grounds. “The number of people here shows it struck a chord in the community. The trees make up so much of the character of Newport.”

“It’s a lovely evening — awesome really, and so family-oriented,” said Mary Berlinghof of Newport, who was on the museum’s front porch with her husband, Chuck.

There was a serious aspect to the evening, though, because so many of the European beeches planted in the late 1800s during the Gilded Age are falling victim to old age and diseases like the rot caused by the phytophthora fungus, which is found naturally in soil but can flourish in aging trees that are vulnerable. A photograph from the 1860s shows the fernleaf European beech peeking over the roof of the museum’s porch, so the tree is more than 150 years old. “It’s a 180-year-old tree, which is pretty old for a tree,” said Bob Elliot of Newport. “It’s spectacular.”

“We’ve lived nearby the museum for 28 years and we’re sad to see her go,” said Grant Edmondson. “She did good.” 

“We used to come to the concerts here with the kids and sit under the beech tree,” said Kim Salerno, chairwoman of the city’s Planning Board, who was at the event with her husband, Steve Irvine. “When trees like this come down, new ones need to be planted. They are an important part of the city’s physical landscape.”
“The problem is not that our beech trees are old and impacted by disease, but that for a generation the community was not planting enough trees,” said Jennifer Garlick, program director for the Newport Tree Society that sponsors the Newport Arboretum, one of the many partners for the event.

Other partners included Catalyzing Newport, the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, National Grid, NewportFILM, Rhode Island’s Ballet Theatre, Edward King House Senior Center, FabNewport, the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Newport County, Salve’s Environmental Club and Salve Studios, besides the museum and jazz ensemble. “After over two decades of work restocking Newport’s public open spaces with trees, we have made tremendous progress,” Garlick said. “But there is far more work to be done.”

“It’s really a crisis in Newport to see what is happening to the trees,” said Tanya Kelley, a member of the museum’s building and grounds committee. “There are 82 beech trees that constitute much of the tree canopy along Bellevue Avenue. When they are gone, there is just sky above.” The Liberty Tree at the intersection of Thames and Farewell streets has been through five plantings since Colonial times, Kelley said, and three of those plantings have been beech trees. “There is a cultural association with beeches in the city,” she said. “People have a great attachment to them.”

“To wish a tree goodbye is such a sad thing,” said Sharon Oliver-Kelley of Newport. “You don’t usually get a chance to do it.”

Thursday was the first night of “The Lighting of the Beeches,” April 14-29, when dozens of European beeches will be lit by property owners across the city. Owners are uplighting their beeches by using one or two laser projection lights below the tree that shower it in tiny laser lights. One light will illuminate the tree canopy, but the addition of a second light focused on the trunk makes the effect much more dramatic.

Jeff Ross, who works for the Newport Tree Society, said he spent a lot of time talking to people about their beech trees and the lights. “We have about 70 people lighting their trees,” he said. “They have spent a lot of energy, time and money keeping their beech trees healthy. Now, they will light them up. They love their beech trees.”