The Evolving Landscape of South Church

Life is change, and change upsets many people. Change came last Thursday to Portsmouth’s South Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation, when two trees were cut down in front of the building. One was a 90-year-old European copper beech, and the other a robust sugar maple. I had just finished scouting a house for Coastal Home and stopped by the church to take a photo of the controversial takedown.

The shallow-rooted trees had been planted too close to the church for their ultimate sizes. The debate over the removals touched me, because I have a poorly sited copper beech at home and often ponder its removal or the extensive, expensive professional pruning that it will need to keep it in check. At South Church, the bare beech seemed to loom over the entry, even without its canopy of big dark purple leaves. The roots of the beech, according to newspaper reports, were already damaging the building’s foundation and starting to lift the steps leading into the church, thus creating a future hazard to the congregation.

When I returned to the site Easter Sunday (April 8), new beds had been installed on the two front corners of the property, each with a multi-stemmed magnolia in the corner. As the magnolias mature, they of course will grow taller and wider, but not hugely so. They will soften the façade and bringing some privacy to people gathered inside the fence at sidewalk level. In fact, the new landscape looks to me like a garden with a designed and functional gathering space.

Like many gardeners, my mantra is right plant, right place, so that beloved trees like the copper beech won’t suffer illness or premature removal. On Easter morning, someone who had disagreed with the Portsmouth beech removal drew a white outline of a little tree canopy where the big tree used to be and wrote inside it one word, “SIN.” Did church leaders, who apparently held a public tree forum and responded with compassion and transparency toward concerned members and residents, miss the mark by taking down the trees? I don’t think so. I hope that the controversy stimulates caring discussion on siting trees for their best outcomes in terms of health, function, and ease of maintenance. What’s your opinion?

2 Responses to “The Evolving Landscape of South Church”

  1. Martha Petersen says:

    Your blog shows deep understanding of much more than the emotional issue of cutting down dear old trees – something none of us ever truly want to do. I am especially appreciative of the emphasis on preventing such angst as this removal of trees has caused by knowing the growth habits of the tree you want to plant and evaluating its appropriateness for where you want to plant it.
    Rational thought and observation, along with some trust of leadership and professional opinion, can spare our community the acrimony it has endured these recent days. Please plant trees, but in the right place.

  2. Bob Scherer says:

    Well written commentary about changes in life. The tree served a purpose up to the point when it’s purpose could no longer be served. The decision should not have been so hard and it should have been made a long time ago.

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