Posted on Mar 28, 2018

The tree whisperer

The forests of New England prepared Paul Harris for a lifetime in Rotary

By Geoff Johnson

When he was a boy growing up in Vermont, Paul Harris made a startling discovery: “Trees talk to each other in a language of their own.” How else could they flawlessly orchestrate the brilliant display of color that each fall without fail set New England ablaze? It seemed obvious: In order to dazzle, the trees must first plan, they must plot, they must converse. 

Ipil: Intsia bijuga Reforestation: Logging and slash-and-burn farming have led to the near-extirpation of the ipil in parts of Southeast Asia; the tree’s wood is used for furniture and flooring. District 3830 (Philippines) planted ipil seedlings to reforest 5,000 hectares of the Irawan Watershed on the Philippine island of Palawan. In a project led by the Rotary Club of Makati Olympia, Rotarians also gave 24 indigenous Batak families 50 seedlings each of kalamansi, a native citrus tree.  

Illustration by Laszlo Kubinyi

“Each tree according to its species is assigned its part,” Harris explained. “The mighty oaks, with such help as the sumacs may give in touching up the low corners, agree to supply the deep wine color admired by all nature lovers; the beech trees, the elms, and the birches supply miles of yellow and red; the maples are never confined to any one color; they are permitted to run riot with everything they have in their paint pots, red, brown, wine color, yellow, green, and what not. All the trees of the forest place their trust in the maples to do the right thing when it comes to painting the forests in the month of October.”

Harris’ arboreal ruminations appear in his autobiography, My Road to Rotary. The book’s title is misleading: Better to look at its subtitle, The Story of a Boy, a Vermont Community, and Rotary, for a clue to the author’s intent. These are the reflections of an old man – the foreword is dated Chicago, October 1945, 15 months before the author’s death – but they are based, as Harris explains, on “observations made through the eyes of a boy.”

The story of that boy occupies nearly two-thirds of the 304-page book. (By contrast, Rotary gets 43 pages.) Harris renders vivid portraits of the grandparents who raised him, of their small town, and of the people who populate it. But he reserves some of his most evocative prose for his description of the New England forests and mountainsides that were his playground. “We lived near to nature in those days,” he recalls. “We were part and parcel of the universe, and in our own quiet enjoyment of things, our lives were fuller than they could have been otherwise.”

Not least among those enjoyments were the trees.

His father’s improvidence may have been the best thing that ever happened to Paul Harris. As a result of his family’s financial woes, Rotary’s founder was delivered into the hands of his paternal grandparents, Howard and Pamela Harris, when he was three years old. The couple lived on a small farm in Wallingford, Vermont. The farm wasn’t much – an extensive garden, a hayfield, a few cows, and a neglected apple orchard – but the surrounding countryside was magnificent. Situated between the Taconic and Green mountains, the Otter Creek Valley was a profusion of rolling hills, bucolic lakes and rivers, and a “bounteous” (Harris’ word) array of trees. A photo of Wallingford that accompanies My Road to Rotary reveals a sliver of Elfin Lake and a vast forest. You literally can’t see the village for the trees. 

This was the setting for the boy’s seemingly idyllic childhood, and as the septuagenarian Harris spins his story, each of the trees of Wallingford assumes an identity of its own. The unbending oak, “mightiest of all trees,” and the “majestic” elm; the “picturesque and beautiful” beech; the “chaste and modest” white birch; the willow, swaying “gracefully in the wind” – all occupy a place in Harris’ twilight reverie.

In winter, young Paul took special delight in the cheer offered by the evergreen pines, firs, and cedars. “Some of the recesses of the forest were like great cathedrals,” his elder avatar rhapsodized, “and the tall spruce trees with their branches bent to the ground by their burdens of snow were like titanic vestured monks bowing low.”

Harris doesn’t say as much, but the maple – “a worker of miracles beyond the ken of man” – might have been his favorite tree. It was the most common tree in the valley, and its hard timber and spring sap, the wellspring of Vermont’s “delectable” syrup, made it the most useful. But as a boy, Paul primarily savored the maple’s “autumnal glory” and, in summer, its abundant shade, beneath which he and his friends could “lie on green grass and dream to their heart’s content.”

Harris’ love of trees did not blind him to their utility. In a chapter headed “An Industrious Community,” he noted that “most of the small industrial plants in Wallingford existed by virtue of the supply of usable timber in the nearby mountains.” The pitchfork factory and the snow shovel company made their handles from ash; another shop made wagons from hickory and ash and used “tough oak” for the wheels’ hubs. Pine trees became window sashes and doors, cedars transformed into shingles and posts, and the bark of the hemlock was used to tan hides. And old one-legged Mr. Pratt could rest easy knowing he would never run out of spruce and pine for his ever-in-demand product: coffins.

But when it came to trees, such practical endeavors were not a boy’s concern. Long after he was capable of following his own advice, Harris made the following recommendation: “Anyone desiring a broad view of the surrounding mountains and hills, lakes and ponds, would do well to climb Rattlesnake Mountain near Lake Dunmore, select the highest tree, and from its topmost branches survey the country as far north as the Canadian border.” Presumably young Paul made that ascent and there glimpsed a world beyond Vermont.

The seasonal rhythms of Vermont remained with Harris all his life. When he returned to Wallingford, from Princeton University, for his grandfather’s funeral, it was the dreary, cold winter that welcomed him home. When his grandmother died a few Octobers later, Harris, unable to make the trip back – he was off in the “west” studying law at the University of Iowa – easily conjured the “funeral procession moving slowly down the valley, along lazy, winding Otter Creek, lit up by the flaming colors of the hillsides and mountains.”

At the family plot, Pamela Harris was laid to rest alongside her husband. “Autumn winds have in due course directed to the graves of grandmother and grandfather myriads of maple leaves which also had spent their life courses and needed only a quiet place to lie down and rest.”

After law school and five years of vagabondage, Harris began his career in Chicago, his home for the ensuing 51 years. “At last my life settled down in earnest during the early spring of 1896, when the sap was in the maple trees back in my valley.” He took a “weird fascination” in the city – “America’s un-rivalled metropolis of the Middle West” – but with few friends, he could not shake off a perpetual sense of loneliness. In 1905, the founding of Rotary helped remedy that, as did his 1910 marriage to Jean Thomson. 

The couple famously met on a countryside hike with the Prairie Club of Chicago, where Harris was a charter member. He tore his jacket on a barbed-wire fence, Thomson – “a bonnie Scottish lassie” – made a-mends, and a few months later they wed. In 1912 they moved into a house at 10856 S. Longwood Drive, about 15 miles south of the Loop. Harris had discovered the neighborhood, called Morgan Park, shortly before he met his future wife. Hilly (atypical for Chicago), wooded – its developers had planted 11,500 trees on the 480-acre tract – and, on Harris’ first encounter, snow-covered, it reminded him of Vermont. “The picture seemed so true to the New England life I had known and loved that the thought came to me if ever I was to have a home of my own, it would be on the top of the hill on Longwood Drive.”

They called their home Comely Bank, after a street in Edinburgh from Jean’s childhood in Scotland. Just south of them, on 110th Street, lived Silvester Schiele, the coal dealer with whom Harris had first discussed his plans for Rotary. In an earlier book, This Rotarian Age, Harris recalled the trail that connected the two homes, “a well-worn path winding through the oak wood made fragrant in the spring by countless blossoms and radiant in autumn by blazing sumac.”

Harris bemoaned the inevitable changes to the neighborhood, particularly the loss of a stand of crabapple trees across from their house that served as a refuge for birds; tractors dragged the trees out by their roots to make way for an apartment building. Despite his display of equanimity – after all, the new apartment dwellers “had made their escape from the noise and confusion of the city” – it’s easy to imagine a forlorn Harris muttering a lament he knew from Thoreau’s journals: “Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!” 

The Harrises’ wooded backyard offered a perpetual solace – and soon acquired an international renown. It began with a visit by Walter Drummond, a Rotarian from Melbourne, Australia. Drummond had admired a blue spruce in the Harris yard, and when he returned home, he planted one in his own garden. After Drummond’s death in 1930 at age 40, Harris dedicated the tree to his memory. It was the first friendship tree in what Harris alternately called his goodwill or friendship garden. (Though Harris often mentioned the garden, there’s no record of how many and what kind of trees he planted. And because the house has changed hands several times since his death, no one knows for sure if any of those trees survive.)

In 1935, Harris reflected on the 30 years that had passed since Rotary’s founding. “Within that period, the Walter Drummond blue spruce tree which stands in my garden of friendship, bowing gracefully in gentle breezes to friendly visitors from distant countries, has gained appreciably in stature, but the twin oaks” – presumably on the path to Schiele’s house – “looking condescendingly down on all ephemeral things, are as they were.”

In 1931, Sydney W. Pascall, the first European president of Rotary International, prepared to embark on a world tour with his wife and daughter. Before Pascall left London, Paul Harris proposed an idea that ultimately became a Rotary tradition. As Pascall remembered it, “the revered founder of Rotary . . . suggested that a most appropriate way of symbolizing the Rotary idea would be the planting of trees. I started the observance in the National Botanical Gardens” in Cape Town, South Africa, with the first tree planted by a Rotary president on a presidential trip. Before the tour was over, Pascall had planted more than 30 trees, while his wife, daughter, and “mayors and Rotary leaders” planted 22.

A habitual planter of trees, Harris immediately emulated Pascall’s example. On 17 August 1932, he planted his first tree – a maple – on European soil. Harris thought the site “especially appropriate”: Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld, a former military parade ground. Fourteen years after the end of World War I, Harris envisioned his maple maturing into a symbol of international peace. “The tree was planted,” he wrote afterward, “with the fervent hope that it would stand for many years as symbolic of the living, growing friendship between the great German people and my own country.” (History, of course, had other plans.)

African Cherry: Prunus Africana Mission green: Traditional healers have long used the bark of the African cherry to treat prostate cancer and other conditions, but its overexploitation, especially for sale to European pharmaceutical companies, has led to its near-extirpation in some areas. In response to Rotary President Ian Riseley’s tree challenge, Rotarians in District 9211 (Tanzania and Uganda) planted African cherries along with more than a dozen other species. Their Mission Green project aims to plant 5 million trees in the two countries by 2021.  From 1990 to 2005, total forest area declined by 37 percent in Tanzania and 25 percent in Uganda, where 94 percent of the population uses wood charcoal or firewood for fuel – burning through an estimated 115 football fields every day. District 9211 Rotarians are also promoting the use of energy-efficient cooking technologies at hospitals, schools, and prisons to reduce energy consumption.  


From Berlin, Harris traveled across Europe, leaving a trail of trees in his wake. Tallinn, Estonia; Helsinki, Finland; Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden; and Bergen, Norway – in a span of about three weeks, each of those cities received a Harris tree. In 1934, he visited South Africa, where Port Elizabeth got a Norfolk pine. The following year, Harris planted trees in Australia, New Zealand, Shanghai, and Japan, including one, in Tokyo, on the grounds of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel.

During Paul and Jean’s 1936 tour of Central and South America, Harris planted more than a dozen trees in seven countries. One occasion stood out: In Valparaiso, Chile, during the first Ibero-American Conference of Rotary clubs, Harris arrived for what must have become an almost commonplace ritual. But a surprise awaited. “The [Rotary] delegates from the various countries each brought with him a sack of soil from his own country,” wrote Harris in his Peregrinations III, “and solemnly emptied it in the hole dug for the tree. Could their sympathy have been better expressed?”

The “satisfaction” of that moment imprinted itself on Harris’ mind. “While I have participated in many [tree plantings], I am certain that the ceremony has never been taken so seriously by so large a number.”

Paul and Jean returned from their equatorial sojourn just as another prairie spring enveloped Comely Bank. Henceforth, Harris’ arboreal endeavors were confined to the United States. As late as 1945, he was still at it, planting an oak tree in Tuskegee, Alabama. (Suffering from fungus and the aftereffects of a lightning strike, the tree came down in 2011, though at the time, Rotarian Al Davis, the Tuskegee city manager, reported that gavels for Rotary clubs had been carved from the oak’s remnants.)

A weary, worldly woodland warrior, Harris could justifiably rest on his Laurus nobilisand reflect on his achievements: “I have planted [trees] on all continents of the earth and on islands of the seas.” No brag, just fact – though a tree grows in Antarctica? (Don’t doubt that Harris could make it happen.) “It is my hope that my trees at home and abroad will stand for generations, friends of birds and friends of men . . . living expressions of international peace and goodwill.”

Harris is in a similar mood in “The End of the Journey,” the final chapter of My Road to Rotary. He is enjoying a cup of tea with Jean by the hearth at Comely Bank, and his thoughts travel back to his Vermont boyhood. A life has run its course, and the tone is elegiac. “The leaves of the maple trees are already beginning to show color . . . [and] some night in the not too distant future, when the eyes of the home folks are closed in sleep, mystic winter will creep silently into the valley.”

Harris expresses no regret. It is the natural cycle of things, and in time, spring’s “resurrection” will recur. Besides, he has left a living legacy of trees spread across the globe, including one rare and vital specimen invigorated by his will and his imagination.

“At our fireside scores of friends from all corners of the globe have delighted us by their presence,” recalls Harris, drifting into a nocturnal trance. “They have come as the result of my planting a sapling in 1905. The first Rotary Club was that sapling. It has grown into a mighty tree in whose shade it is delightful to dwell.”