He flew Army helicopters in Korea. Now, planting trees is his mission

George McDowell, photographed on Oct. 11,2019, checks on the descendant of the Davie Poplar that he's keeping at his house through winter.


By TRENT BROWN | The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) | Published: October 24, 2019

CARY, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — George McDowell has always liked trees, but he gained a special connection with them while serving in Korea after the war.

During its occupation of Korea from 1910-1945, Japan exported millions of Korean trees back home. McDowell noticed, when he was there years later, that many Koreans saw planting a tree as a symbol of independence.

The eastern side of South Korea is mountainous and McDowell flew Army helicopters as part of a border patrol peacekeeping, so civilians often asked him to take them up the mountain to plant a tree.

He’d tell them that, while he wasn’t allowed to fly them up the mountain, he could plant it for them.

Later, he asked a new general if he could fly some civilians to plant their trees, as a way to gain trust in the area. The general called the Pentagon the next day and got a waiver. Taking Korean citizens to plant their trees became a big part of McDowell’s job.

Now he’s bringing that spirit to a small patch of land in the White Oak Creek Greenway, with the Cary Tree Archive.

'This park needs shade'

The 6.5-acre plot just off SW Cary Parkway and across from the Taylor Family YMCA is mostly open, with grassy hills, a few trees and a children’s playground.

“This park needs shade,” McDowell said, walking through the greenway which runs almost 5 miles from Green Level Church Road to Fred Bond Park. “For seven months out of the year it’s unusable. It’s just too hot for the kids.”

The Tree Archive had its first mass planting Sept. 28, with about 50 participants ranging from a 7-year-old to McDowell, who’s 70.

Planters included candidates from local elections, like Ya Liu, the newly elected first Asian American town council member in Cary.

Kristen Moore, who recently opened A to Z Pharmacy in southwest Cary, funded and planted a tree to celebrate the store’s launch.

“We want to stay here for a long time, and planting a tree was symbolic for that,” she said. She also said her pharmacy uses recyclable bags and other items and the environment is an important part of its mission.

Bald cypress trees

The group planted six bald cypress trees along a ditch. The coniferous trees are known for their hardiness, but specifically their ability to grow in standing water. A bald cypress on the Black River in Bladen County may be the oldest tree in eastern America, over 2,600 years old.

These are the first of what McDowell hopes to be many trees planted for decades to come. The next mass planting will be Nov. 8 when he expects 15 to 20 trees to be planted. The Tree Archive is also planning events with businesses as team building exercises.

“It’s a great opportunity to bring in big groups and do big plantings,” said arborist Dave Klemp, who runs Trees for the Triangle.

He gets trees from wholesale nurseries and plants them for people, groups and towns that hire him.

He works with McDowell on other things, like planting dawn redwoods at a local VFW and said the Cary Tree Archive partnership came out of McDowell seeking him out.

“(He) told me, ‘We want to build our own forest,’” Klemp said.

Davie Poplar descendant

Sitting in McDowell’s driveway, behind the cacti and shrubs in his front yard, is a small, nondescript tree with yellow caution tape tied to a bamboo stick in its pot and a tiny white marker that says “D 08.”

It might not look like much, but it’s a direct descendant of the Davie Poplar, the over 300-year-old tulip poplar on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. He’s had it for about a month and plans to plant it at the greenway once it’s big enough.

He’s also in line for descendants of the Angel Oak from Johns Island, South Carolina, and Maryland’s Wye Oak.

McDowell hopes to one day have a tunnel of trees leading to the children’s playground at the greenway that offer real shade and other benefits.

Until then, he’ll keep giving out seeds to those who want them, watering new trees with gallon Arizona tea jugs and checking their condition. One of the bald cypresses lost its bark soon after planting. The perpetrator is unknown, but McDowell hopes it was just a deer and plans to replace it soon.

©2019 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
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