Tree Hugger: Nantucket's Town Arborist Dale Gary

Jason Graziadei •

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“Have you ever heard a tree speak?” Dale Gary asked me on a recent spring morning.

“No,” I replied.

“I’m the voice,” he said. “You’re the voice. We have to have a voice to protect these trees.”

For Gary, who has served as the town of Nantucket’s arborist for the past twenty-six years, that mission has become his life’s work. There’s no bigger champion of the island’s trees—especially its population of 170-year-old American elms—than Gary. With his assistant Scott Williams, Gary meticulously cares for more than 1,800 trees around the island, both young and old. In his eyes, the work is not necessarily measured in hours, days or weeks. He takes the long view when it comes to Nantucket’s trees. “I’m doing what you call the ‘pebble in the pond’ effect,” Gary said. “I’m throwing the pebble, and the ripple of what I’m doing is hopefully going to catch up with your grandkids. I’m the pebble.”

That Gary ended up on Nantucket at all, let alone as the town arborist for nearly three decades, is an improbable tale that began in the Deep South. Born and raised in Rosedale, Mississippi, Gary had never heard of Nantucket. The small town of roughly two thousand people— known as “The Delta City of Brotherly Love”—is located on the banks of the Mississippi River. Rosedale was immortalized in the lyrics of blues legend Robert Johnson’s song “Traveling Riverside Blues,” the lyrics of which later made it into Cream’s “Crossroads” and Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song.”

Growing up in Rosedale, Gary had eight siblings—all sisters. “So I had a lot of mothers as I was coming up,” he recalled. “We didn’t have anything, but I never went hungry. We had everything we needed and hoped to get some of the things we wanted.” But after high school, Gary found it difficult to find work, at least something he wanted to do. That’s when he got the call from his friend Johnny Beans telling him about some island off Massachusetts called Nantucket where he had a job waiting for him. At first, Gary turned it down, but eventually his friend convinced him.

The year was 1988, and Gary soon found himself on the island working at E.J. Harvey’s restaurant on Pleasant Street. “Honestly, it was different,” Gary said of his first impressions of Nantucket. “I didn’t have many white friends in Mississippi. To come here, you’re reluctant to build friendships at first because you thought that’s the way things were. You know how they say ‘when you know better, you do better’? I didn’t know any better. But the best move I ever made in my life was moving to Nantucket. It gave me my opportunity.”

After a few years at the restaurant, Gary took a position as a mechanic with the Department of Public Works. While he quickly realized the job wasn’t really what he wanted, it did lead him to cross paths with the man who would ultimately change the trajectory of his life: former Nantucket arborist Roger Geiger.

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“I saw him prune one tree, and I knew this was what I wanted to do; I knew this was it,” Gary said. “His specialty was American elms. That is what Nantucket is about—the history of American elms. But when I saw him pruning that maple tree, I knew it was for me. There was no question. It clicked, instantly.”

The problem was, at first, that Gary had no experience as an arborist. And his working relationship with Geiger got off to a rocky start. They were in Sconset together pruning trees one morning in the early 1990s when Gary noticed that Geiger was close to hitting the power lines. He started yelling to Geiger to warn him. “Then he started yelling at me because I was yelling at him,” he recalled. “He was so short-tempered and I was short-tempered at the time. But the next day he came up to me and said, ‘Dude, I like your passion. I want to work with you.’ That’s how it really got started.”

From that point, Gary set out to learn as much as he could about trees and arboriculture. It was, as he described it, “hardcore self-studying,” which allowed him to take over the full-time town arborist position from Geiger in the fall of 1995.

“My passion for the job was so strong, I was determined to learn everything I could,” he said. “And I’m still studying. I think it’s worked out well for me and the town. I’ve got a job I like, and the town trees are protected as long as I’m on Nantucket.”

Over the past twenty-six years, Gary said he has waded into numerous “fights” over town trees when a homeowner or business has tried to remove them. One of his very first occurred in 2006 over a dawn redwood tree located in front of the former Mad Hatter restaurant that was pegged to be cut down following the building’s demolition. Gary, along with tree warden Dave Champoux and numerous community members, said, “No, you’re not going to take it down.” The resolution was to have the Toscana Corporation mobilize to move the tree with steel girders—in a manner similar to how it moves houses—to its current site along South Beach Street where it still stands today, healthy and thriving.

When he’s not tending to the island’s trees as the town arborist or through his private business, Tree Man Tree Service, Gary is most likely either fishing for stripers along the beach, gardening or working on his collection of more than thirty chainsaws. He’s been an anchor in the Nantucket- Martha’s Vineyard fishing tournament and has cultivated what he calls a “community garden” at his home on Bartlett Road where he grows and gives away cucumbers, tomatoes, squash and hot peppers so spicy “the devil won’t eat them.”

But his pride and joy is undoubtedly his daughter and only child, Tasheira, who recently graduated from Salem State University with a master’s degree in education. “She’s my world,” Gary said. “She’s what keeps me going.”

Of all the trees Gary cares for around the island, I was curious to know if he had a favorite. He quickly rattled off three American elms that are near and dear to him: the large one on Quince Street, another in the back corner of the Academy Hill parking lot and, of course, the massive elm at Four Corners near Nantucket High School. All of them date back to 1848, he said.

According to Gary, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dutch elm disease was a serious problem on the island that resulted in the loss of twenty to twenty-five elms each year. Gary said he has worked hard to suppress the spread of the disease, tending to the island’s elms only between late November through March during the most advantageous time with the least amount of risk to the trees.

“We have to be very careful how we deal with town trees,” Gary said. “If I take a tree down, it’s only because it needs to come down. We’re not going to take it down because someone wants a view or something else.”

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