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For woman, uprooting trees is losing old friends

Elsie Brown planted eight oak trees 20 years ago, and now the adult trees will be cut down.

Before the eight oak trees could be cut down to make room for a gymnasium, Elsie Brown needed to say a proper goodbye.

Brown feels somewhat possessive of the trees and understandably so. Twenty years ago, she put some acorns in skim milk cartons and cared for the trees as they grew. When they were large enough, she planted those trees and a few others in the ground.

"I gave birth to these trees," said Brown, 84.

On Monday, at her request, an arborist came to the shady area behind the Walton Community Center and helped Brown and members of the city's Gro Group bid farewell to the trees, which are scheduled to be cut down this week. The Gro Group, in which volunteers and mentally retarded adults work on gardening projects, has a nursery at the site.

"Oh great spirit that lives within all of us . . . turn men's thoughts away from destruction," arborist Loren Westenberger said in the "thanking ceremony."

Westenberger performed a Cherokee prayer that he said "is as old as time itself." He thanked trees for providing oxygen and giving a home to squirrels, and said humans and trees have a close connection with each other.

"We're all kind of related in this big dance we call creation," he said.

The eight trees are being cut down to clear the way for a public gymnasium at the community center. When the gym is built, the Gro Group will relocate to an adjacent property.

Brown, a sponsor of the Gro Group and a member of the local Garden Club, said the ceremony helped her feel better. Still, she said, the loss of the trees made her feel a physical void.

"It's just like my heart is being dug out of my body," she said.

At the end of the ceremony, some volunteers and Gro Group members placed their hands on one of the trees and thanked it.

"Sometimes when you have to construct, you have to destruct first," Westenberger said. To Brown and the others, he said, "Thank you all for coming and acknowledging creation."

He promised to return after the gymnasium is built to plant new oak trees. Brown was touched by his effort and hugged the arborist. But she also is realistic about the time it takes for trees to look like the oaks she planted.

"It'll take 20 years for a tree to grow like these," she said.