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UnCommonwealth: Want to see history? Look up at Lexington's park trees

Modern lawn care, which dumps destructive chemicals into groundwater, threatens trees such as this blue ash in Lexington's Castlewood Park.
Modern lawn care, which dumps destructive chemicals into groundwater, threatens trees such as this blue ash in Lexington's Castlewood Park. Herald-Leader

Standing among the majestic trees in Castlewood Park, Tom Kimmerer asks you to think back to what this area looked like more than 200 years ago, when Lexington was just a gleam in the eye of a few settlers traveling in the wake of herds of trampling bison.

Kimmerer is holding a Saturday tour of some of Lexington's venerable trees, starting with Castlewood and winding around the downtown area. His book, Venerable Trees: Old-Growth Trees in an Urban and Agricultural Landscape, will be published in October.

The term Kimmerer uses for the habitat that spurred the settlement of Lexington, a city that sits on no navigable waterway, is "woodland pasture." The chief scientist for the Lexington-based Venerable Trees organization, Kimmerer said the ground was desirable because it allowed early residents instant farmland and, within easy reach, the look of upper-class English gardens.

Look around the Lexington area and know this, Kimmerer said: "This landscape was created by bison and drought."

The bison formed the landscape because the animals could grow up to 8 feet tall and weigh as much as a ton, pounding down the earth before them. The drought also played a role, because it literally weeded out less hardy trees.

While Fayette County is not one of Kentucky's most heavily wooded areas, the trees that lasted hundreds of years are in many cases not the trees being planted here today. Kimmerer said Castlewood is fortunate in that it was preserved by the Lexington parks system; about half the trees on the property were there before 1779.

Such trees might continue to thrive on their own, but they have powerful foes — development and modern lawn care, which dumps destructive chemicals into groundwater, and thus into the trees.

Castlewood's trees, particularly those around Loudoun House, are noteworthy because about half were alive before Lexington was established in 1779.

Kimmerer is standing beneath a pre-settlement blue ash near Loudoun House as he talks. Venerable trees, he explains, are trees that include blue ash, kingnut and three types of oak — Shumard, chinkapin, and bur.

Why are these trees important and worth preservation?

Such trees have survived for hundreds of years, their lightning scars and occasional battered branches holding unique appeal. They are appropriate to the Lexington climate. The trees have deep root systems that can reach down for a drink even when the rest of the landscape appears to be in drought.

"Nobody knows we live in this treasure trove of ancient trees," Kimmerer said. "... Very few cities have any trees at all that pre-date settlement. How do you build the city? You cut down the forest."

Fortunately, he said, that didn't happen here. In fact, contrary to popular wisdom, trees grow faster as they get older. "We've had three years of fantastic growth," he said, because of recent weather patterns.

The venerable trees were not only preserved but were allowed to reach an advanced age — something Kimmerer says won't happen with some of the short-lived trees now being planted, such as the red maple.

Just because venerable trees are not always towering specimens — such as a stubby blue ash on the parking circle in front of Loudoun House — doesn't mean they're not thriving, Kimmerer said.

"I don't think this tree has more than 300 years left," he said.

Woodland pastures are found in the Kentucky Bluegrass and Nashville Basin and in the United Kingdom, Russia, Romania and South Africa.

Kimmerer notes that Lexington's venerable trees aren't just found in parks and downtown. One impressive bur oak casts its shade on the Avis car sales lot on South Broadway. Kimmerer said Broadway was at one time a buffalo trace, a track down which the animals ran.

You don't even have to get out of the car to see a venerable tree. One of the Castlewood trees, described by Kimmerer as "a classic open-grown bur oak," can be seen while driving past Castlewood on Bryan Avenue if you glance immediately to the right while headed toward New Circle.

Also close to Bryan Avenue is what Kimmerer calls "a magnificent tree," a chinkapin oak.

Lexington and surrounding areas need to care for the area's trees with the same kind of organization combined with passion that other areas give to their trees, Kimmerer said. He cited Trees Atlanta (Treesatlanta.org) as an example among such groups.

Said Kimmerer: "We need to have a lot more citizen involvement, to acquaint people with these trees and get them to fall in love with them ... to understand the spiritual aspects of having these giant ancient organisms in our midst."

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