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Photo courtesy Donna Joyce
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Photo courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
During recent pedestrian perambulations, I happened upon Donna Joyce, whom last we met in a Hat post of July 2009, due to the efforts by her and other volunteers to rehabilitate Paradise Park. It’s tucked in the alley of the 100 blocks of North Vine Street and North Allen Avenue.
The space is used for community events, reading and lazing. Unfortunately, the massive Paradise tree for which the park is named was a casualty of Hurricane Irene.
The Paradise tree was part of Joyce's life; she could see it from her bathroom. The evening of Irene's visit to Richmond, she recalls hearing what she thought was a thump. She and her family were concerned about a tree leaning against a power line; that one never budged. But when she looked out her window to check on the Paradise tree, there was nothing but sky.
During a lull in the storm, she went out and viewed the fallen, crumbled body. The massive tree went out as quietly as it could given the circumstances. The park’s serpentine brick wall was unharmed, though some fencing and a porch across the alley were damaged, and the sign listing the park rules was taken out by the tree’s collapse. Most importantly, no one was hurt.
"The arborist who cleared it away ... told us that it looked to him like the tree was 300 years old,” Joyce says. “And it was not in the best of health. Trees of Heaven aren’t usually that long-lived. Some people didn’t like the Paradise, but it gave great shade, and the kids liked it, and it’s how the park got its name. Obviously, this little community by the park was built around it.”
Meaning that more than a century ago, it must’ve been imposing enough that even developers — some of them as opportunistic as the tree itself — thought better of taking it down. This tree species is basically considered a weed here,although the tree in Betty Smith’s 1943 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also a “Tree of Heaven.”
“There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly ... survives without sun, water, and seemingly earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.”
The Fan's Tree of Paradise lived way past its expectancy. To put it in perspective: About the time it was a sapling, William Byrd II was still in his 30s, and Richmond as even a town wasn’t a gleam in his eye. In 1711, he was trying to push the Tuscarora Indians off the North Carolina border.
This Paradise endured every hurricane and storm thrown at it for the better and worse part of three centuries and wasn’t even ripped down as an impediment to progress. This wasn't the fate in 1915 of the luckless estimated 300-year-old oak at Park Avnue and Boyd Street (shown at right). It was pulled down “to the dismay of citizens,” as Drew St. J. Carneal notes in his book Richmond's Fan District.
The violence of storms in recent years has taken a considerable toll on some of the region’s most august trees. This happens in nature, what with the wind and the fire, and it's a part of how forests replenish. But in a built environment, with concerns for above-ground utility wires and property damage, these big trees won’t get replaced. Some, which have stood the test of time, may be sacrificed for safety's sake. Joyce notes that in the case of the Paradise tree, Irene may have conducted a mercy killing.
“The tree wasn’t doing well," she says. "Tree-sized parts of it were falling off it, and you can see from the stump, it was rotting.”
Joyce would like to have a memorial service for the tree, possibly as part of a dedication ceremony for a bench that may be built from the Paradise’s remnants. A woodworker father of a park volunteer is very interested. By the way, if anybody out there has old pictures of the park — at one point a collection of dilapidated garages — or the tree, let Donna know through this link.
She’ll miss the tree, though perhaps in its place a bee and butterfly garden can be developed.
And nature will take her course in Paradise Park.