At the start of every school year, long, entangled branches reach overhead, leaves intermixing and filtering the sunlight with a greenish hue, shading sidewalks. A few months in, a wave of red and yellow and orange flies through campus, its glow sparking countless photos and internal expressions of awe.
Then the leaves fall — and the acorns.
Lines and angles become more apparent in the campus landscape. But come spring, the leaves return, with them flowers, and the cycle repeats — complete with even more photos.
And campus arborist Tom Bythell is there for it all, keeping everything pristine yet simultaneously natural-looking and nudging along trees that need a little help.
Every day on this campus, some of the oldest, tallest, biggest, grandest trees envelop the students, the faculty, the buildings — they are an ever-present comfort, a reliable part of campus and perhaps most importantly, a piece of UNC-Chapel Hill history.
Students almost universally share a love of UNC’s physical campus — it’s noted during campus tours, on UNC’s website, on discussion forums. We post pictures on our Facebooks and Instagrams. We miss it, and we crave it when we’ve left it behind, and we take comfort in knowing generations of students behind us will love it just the same.
And that’s what Bythell loves best.
I met Bythell on a blustery Thursday morning, the day before Hurricane Joaquin and a weekend’s worth of heavy rains and wind hit the east coast.
Standing outside the Campus Y, across from the Old Well, Bythell excitedly gestured for me to look over at McCorkle Place, where a landscape crew was taking out azalea bushes and further down the road, where other workers were clearing storm drains to prepare for the next day’s downpour.
“I just noticed there was a lot going on in this little area,” he said. “And I thought that was pretty cool.”
Bythell loves trees. All trees. He always has, and he’s not sure why.
He said he is frequently asked if he has a favorite tree, and his answer is always the same — he doesn’t. He can’t.
He’s an advocate for all of the trees, and during his years here, he’s worked hard to protect them from construction and save them from diseases.
“Tom is able to, through words and his body language, show his interest in trees,” said Jill Coleman, a campus landscape architect.
“He almost vibrates when he talks about the trees and the wildlife that’s in the trees and watching how people interact with the trees and protecting the trees.”
Approximately 80 workers take care of UNC’s grounds, but in the last seven to eight years, Bythell said the grounds department has lost almost 40 percent of its budget. So to ensure new trees are always able to be planted, UNC has a tree fund — any construction project on campus that removes or damages trees must put money into the fund. Bythell said he uses that money to continuously plant shade trees throughout campus. He doesn’t want a gap where no new trees are planted, and for people in twenty to thirty years ask why.
“I’m ensuring that there’s never an excuse,” he said. “There will always be money to plant trees on UNC’s campus.”
Bythell is tall and thin; he’s wiry with intense, blue eyes, and his hands are workman’s hands. They are the hands of someone who understands, and embraces, working in and around nature’s elements.
In his seventeenth year at UNC, he’s watched campus change and has preserved as many trees as he could in the meantime. Before he came to UNC, he held a similar position at Princeton University. Previously, he ran tree companies.
“You were at a different property every day and you may never see the tree you worked on again, but here I like just continually working on them and trying to improve them,” he said. “They’re like my children.”
Bythell received a degree in forestry from Penn State University, where “he thought it’d be really cool to work in a park and ride a horse and wear a funky hat and tell people what types of trees there were.”
“And of course, I was 16 years old, what did I know?”
Bythell doesn’t ride a horse or wear a funky hat, but he does get to tell people all kinds of things about trees. It’s not the only part of his job, but it is his favorite.
“I could talk about the trees all day.”
Bythell’s commitment to continuing to protect and plant trees on campus helped lead to one of the most progressive tree protection plans on a college campus in the country.
In 1999, UNC renovated Graham Memorial on McCorkle Place, in front of which stood two large and old white oak trees. Construction workers trenched near one of the trees to put in underground water lines that connected to a fire hydrant about 100 yards away. During the process, workers damaged some of the roots, causing the tree to die in a few short weeks in a hot summer drought.
Bythell asked why the contractor chose to trench there. “It was in the shade,” he said. The workers didn’t want to work in the hot sun.
As people driving and walking by campus started asking what had happened to the tree, their complaints and anger prompted University officials to create a task force for a tree protection plan, which Bythell chaired.
By 2002, UNC was in the midst of a massive construction project that added thousands of square footage to the campus. In 2000, the General Assembly passed a $3.1 billion bond issue for the improvement of UNC-system and North Carolina Community College System facilities.
At this point, Bythell had the plans in place he needed in order to protect the trees, and he, Coleman and others continued to advocate for protection of UNC’s historic campus.
Coleman said she and Bythell co-chaired the Landscape Heritage and Tree Diversity Task Force. Comprised of students, faculty and staff, the group evaluated UNC’s landscape and came up with recommendations for its preservation and protection.
“It gave us more criteria by which we would review building projects as they came through,” she said. “It gave us tools to help protect trees.”
If Bythell were to have a favorite tree, in fact, that tree would be one of the ones saved during that period of construction on campus.
It’s not exactly where someone might expect a beautiful tree to be located, but nestled at the bottom of an outdoor set of stairs near the Kenan Labs and South Road, a catalpa tree grows strong and tall.
Bythell says the tree is rare for its species, which usually grow to a maximum of about 60 feet and then spread out. Instead, this one grows tall into the air, and when it blooms, people come to see. The flowers are huge and white, and they look almost like snowballs floating on the tree limbs.
But about 10 years ago, it was in danger of being taken down.
Designers and engineers worked to avoid the tree when installing two utilities, but in the construction process, things started to shift, and it looked like the tree would have to be removed.
So Bythell, in an effort to at least save the type of tree, collected seedlings growing below and grew them in his nursery, eventually planting a few throughout campus. One in Aycock Circle is growing tall, he said, just like its parent tree.
But this time, again, engineers, designers, construction workers and grounds workers evaluated the situation and chose to spend extra money to work around the tree rather than remove it.
“I think it’s worth it. Not everybody does. A lot of engineers would think about it in a financial way, but they don’t here,” Bythell said. “They’re not encouraged to.”
The day Bythell takes me on a walking tour of the campus trees couldn’t be more different from the day of our first interview.
It is the quintessential Carolina day, a day that couldn’t have been more fitting for the university’s 222nd birthday. The skies overhead are a cloudless clear blue. There’s a slight chill in the air, at least in the shade, and the leaves are just starting to turn from green to orange, red and yellow.
Bythell takes off quickly, walking fast from spot to spot on campus, pointing out a variety of green spaces, from large, old trees to younger ones to garden-like natural areas tucked away between buildings.
“We want you to turn the corner and go ‘Wow, I’m sorry I’m graduating in a year! I would’ve spent time here,’” he said.
Bythell takes pride in maintaining a campus that so many students fall in love with, and in his pursuit of keeping the trees and campus beautiful and healthy, not a single detail escapes his eye.
As we walk toward the stairs heading to the science buildings, he points out fire ant hills: “This time of year they get really pissed off when it’s cold, so they bring their eggs up and build mounds to warm them. Then we eradicate them.”
And passing Venable Hall, Bythell points out a heat island, where the sun’s light reflects off a window and bears down on the ground below. These reflections often create a 25-degree temperature difference, and Bythell says he has an infrared thermometer he uses to measure the temperature there.
“The only thing that stops that?” he said. “Trees.”
Later on during the tour, in McCorkle Place, Bythell pauses and bends down to examine a box or cage-like object made out of sticks bound together with hair ties and rubber bands leaning into a crevice in a tree.
“It looks benign enough. OK, yeah,” he said as he straightened back up.
And the tour continues.
Today the trees function as a source of beauty, shade and as a part of the intellectual feel to UNC, but in the past, they served a more functional purpose.
“The trees meant so much to students in the past,” Bythell said.
Classes gifted trees to the university. Two of them still stand. Graduation used to take place in the trees, right in front of the Davie Poplar. Even today, different events or organizations will plant trees as memorials. In front of Carroll Hall, Bythell planted a Liberty Elm in 2009 in collaboration with the School of Media and Journalism to commemorate First Amendment Day.
But for the first generations of UNC students, the trees also served a more primal purpose. They weren’t all there for aesthetic or commemorative purposes — they were there for food.
In the early days, students and workers hunted. They favored trees that attracted deer and squirrels, which is why horse chestnut trees were common throughout campus, he said. Deer eat horse chestnuts. Humans don’t.
And in keeping with the time-honored tradition that college students love beer, there were persimmon trees on campus. A source of sweetness — and of alcohol. The sweet, orange fruits were fermented and brewed into persimmon beer. Campus was a brewery.
The last persimmon tree stood on Polk Place, one of the few trees out of line in the orderly columns. Bythell and his crews left it there until it died a few years ago and have since planted another in its place — a homage to the past and to the students who made their own beer, and the only tree out of alignment with the straight columns in Polk Place.
“My persimmon,” Bythell said.
Bythell’s focus on the trees — all the trees, any that need help — sometimes makes him a little scattered elsewhere, said David Brannigan, a worker for the grounds service who has been at UNC for 13 years.
“He’s fun to work with,” he said. “He can be a little disorganized, but that’s because he has fingers in many pies, and he has his eyes on many trees.”
Brannigan’s area of focus is Polk Place, and he laughingly admitted he’s not fond of the persimmon tree — it ruins the symmetry, he said.
He likes to think of Polk Place as the village green — he compares UNC to a village, with the Pit as the commercial district where things happen, and the quad as the unifying place where people gather, whether it’s for a joyful event such as Holi Moli or for a tragic time, such as when student body President Eve Carson was killed in 2008.
Brannigan is from England, but his family is from Ireland, and he speaks with an accent. His favorite part of working for the grounds, he said, is the opportunities he’s had because he works for a university. He’s met Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu, two of his heroes.
“I got to meet both of those people because I work here,” he said. “Because I’m so at the heart of the life of the University, which is the campus and its activities — its academic activities, its service activities — because I’m at the heart of that, I get little perks like that.”
Margaret O’Shaughnessey, an English professor at UNC, teaches a science literature course every fall about the trees and landscape on campus, including main campus as well as the Botanical Garden, Coker Arboretum, Battle Park and an area she didn’t know about until just this past year, the Coker Pinetum, which is a pine forest near Henry Stadium on Ridge Road.
Bythell and Coleman take her class on a tour of McCorkle Place each year, which she describes as “wonderful.”
A service-learning class, students develop projects to help raise awareness about different natural areas on or near campus.
“I felt it was just sterile,” O’Shaughnessey said. “We were just sitting in a classroom talking about these things or issues, but nobody had a stake in the game.”
O’Shaughnessey said students who take her class come away with an understanding of what makes up the local ecology and of the history the trees on campus present.
“I want them to know their landscape, to be able to identify trees because there’s such a feeling of both power when you know the name of something and of familiarity, and you recognize the tree as a kind of friend because you know the difference between this one and that one,” she said.
O’Shaughnessey is impassioned when talking about the trees. Her favorite trees change with the seasons, and she especially enjoys the cherry trees that bloom in the spring.
“(The trees) are a history,” she said. “They give you a history of the land.”
Anyone who walks through campus can see what the University has valued through the years. The trees are so old, so stable, such an ingrained part of the University’s identity. The trees tell people that UNC has always encouraged shade. The trees give people a chance to pause in their day and to reflect. They’re a way to escape without leaving the campus or the town.
“But we’re blind to them most of the time,” O’Shaughnessey said. “Frankly, you’re either lost in your thoughts or looking at your cell phone as you’re walking through campus.”
They’re so ever-present it’s hard sometimes to remember to take them in.
But there is a connection that any student, staff member, unsung founder or faculty share, as O’Shaughnessey and Bythell pointed out.
There are several trees on UNC’s campus that predate the campus — including the Davie poplar, as well as a black oak near Franklin Street. And these are the trees that bind the UNC community together, maybe not quite in a tangible or even recognizable way, but they have stood, and they have born witness to everything this University has endured. They’ve stood the test of time in a way in a living way that nothing else can, and that was evident on Oct. 12, 2015, when the Real Silent Sam Coalition protested racism and inequality in front of Chancellor Carol Folt and others gathered for the beginning of the University Day ceremony.
When the university was founded, slave labor was a major part of UNC’s development and care. While the University did not own slaves, it rented men and women from the surrounding community to work, and they played an instrumental, although often unnoticed, role in the history of the grounds, and consequently, the trees.
It would be impossible to write this story in clear conscience without acknowledging the slaves who worked on UNC’s grounds and helped build and develop the campus to what it is today.
Their work, and that protest, and everything that has happened in between, contributes to the history of the campus, and the trees have born witness to it all.
And walking under these trees is the closest thing we have to a single shared Carolina experience. Because almost every person who ever walked through this campus has seen those trees. And some of those trees have been there for a lot of the growth and changes of this place. Bythell wants those trees to always be here to see it all unfold — they are what he loves, what he protects and what he and his crews give back to UNC.
Brannigan said when he drives out West to go climbing, people often ask about the UNC sticker on his car: is he a student? A faculty member? And when he tells him he works for the grounds department, he likes that most of the time, a person’s first reaction is an exclamation about how beautiful, or “brilliant,” the campus is. When students compliment grounds workers, he said, they might not say much back, but it means a lot to them — the other workers always bring it up when convening at the end of the day.
Brannigan and Bythell both think students understand at some level the work that goes into campus. Students might not know the nitty-gritty details, but without their love of the campus, Bythell doesn’t think what the grounds department does would be possible.
“A lot of the accomplishments we’ve had have been because of the students’ love for the trees,” he said. “The trees are really important to a lot of — actually, all the students, whether they realize it or not.”