Oak Parkers love trees. There are 18,000 of them in our parkways and parks, a collection large and diverse enough to be designated Illinois’ first Village Arboretum. 

I’ve been studying and painting the tiny, often-unnoticed flowers of some of these trees for five years — long enough to want to share my discoveries. So I was excited when, a year ago in March, Oak Park Public Library’s longtime community relations manager, Debby Preiser, booked my paintings into the main library’s gallery for the following October.

But she didn’t leave it there. “We ask artists to contribute a community program,” she said. “It’s not a requirement, but would you like to?”

Her question stopped me short. Some artists talk about their work, but this seemed like an excellent chance to showcase the people who champion our urban forest and enlist others to help. What happened next taught me a lot about a community I thought I already knew.

I still recall my arrival in 1993 and the sound of the Wednesday Journal landing on my front stoop soon after the moving truck left. I liked the passionate village reflected in a hometown paper that not only reported clashing views but also seemed to thrive on them.

For the next 15 years I commuted downtown to newspaper jobs that required I not develop any potential conflicts of interest. Without children in the schools or any active community roles, I was basically a taxpaying, voting, commuter-observer on my small plot in a leafy neighborhood.

Today, 10 years into retirement, I’m free to express political views and to reach out for help to make things happen. With Preiser’s proposed program on my mind, I began talking to arborists, tree advocates, and activists. 

I remembered an excellent Wednesday Journal article by self-described “tree girl” Gina Orlando from Aug. 12, 2014, “The old-growth oaks we hold so dear,” https://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/8-12-2014/The-old_growth-oaks-we-hold-so-dear. This led me to former Oak Parker Mark Duntemann, an internationally recognized arborist with an interest in the cultural and ecological significance of very old trees. Without much prompting, he offered to fly in from his home in Vermont to talk about the year he mapped Oak Park’s pre-settlement oaks and what they tell us.

Duntemann will be one of four speakers at Celebrate OAKtober Tree Forum, 2 to 5 p.m., Oct. 13, at the main library’s Veterans Room — a program entirely jump-started by the library’s tradition of asking artists to contribute. 

Pamela Todd, president of West Cook Wild Ones, a nonprofit that promotes natural landscaping, volunteered inspiration, practical help and her group’s sponsorship. Village Forestry Superintendent Robert Sproule gave freely of his time and advice and agreed to speak. Too many others to mention shaped the upcoming program.

And here is what I discovered about Oak Park: We complain about high taxes, argue over high-rise development, debate fiercely how best to achieve racial equity. We even disagree about how to prune trees. But underlying our discord is a concern for community, a welcoming attitude toward new contributors, and a willingness to collaborate.

I understood why I chose to live in Oak Park. And why I choose to stay.

Visit https://tinyurl.com/oaktobertreeforum for program details.

Oak Park resident Barbara Rose is a retired reporter and weekly columnist (Crain’s, Chicago Tribune) who still feels, despite declining print readership, that editorial pages that rub off on your fingertips are the heart and soul of our communities.

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