December 1, 2021

Harrison Street Park Tree Donations Inspired by Novel “The Overstory”

A GIFT OF A GROVE: Ronnie Ragen, center, and Princeton Councilmember Michelle Pirone Lambros, far left, gathered recently with members of Ragen’s family and the Princeton Shade Tree Commission to plant trees in memory of Ragen’s parents.

By Anne Levin

Princeton’s Shade Tree Commission is hoping that a recent tree-planting project honoring the memory of two former residents will inspire others to consider making similar donations.

Ronnie Ragen and her brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Lisa Ragen, recently gifted a grove of trees in Harrison Street Park, where a dense forest stood before the ravages of storms and the notorious emerald ash borer. The donation is under the aegis of the Commission’s Commemorative Tree program.

The newly planted grove of Happidaze American sweetgums, American yellow woods, and Cherokee Princess Florida dogwoods is arranged in a semi-circle, “to create a restful and welcoming nook in the park,” according to a press release by Commission member Alexandra Radbil. A Norway spruce was also installed, to replace an aging white pine that had served as a screen.

“The new grove will provide multi-season interest: striking white flowers on the dogwood and the yellow wood in spring, a variety of colors in the fall, and fragrant leaves throughout the year on the sweetgum,” reads the release. “The flowers on all the trees are a source of food for pollinators, and the pods and seeds the trees produce are a food source for birds and mammals. Their placement and structure add visual interest and density to the park and serve as a buffer between the park and the road.”

Ragen, the program director emerita of Trenton Music Makers, had been considering how to memorialize her parents, Irving and Sylvia Ragen, who lived in Princeton for six years after moving north from Florida. When she read The Overstory, Richard Powers’ novel in which characters confront the plight of the earth’s forest, she began to think about planting trees in their honor. 

“Reading the book was the catalyst,” Ragen said this week. “There is one vignette about a young man who makes a frantic effort to plant trees, only to discover, after he’s worked himself to the bone, that they are being planted to be cut down. The idea of planting something that I could be sure wouldn’t be cut down really struck me. Then, I heard from a friend that Princeton is going to lose 2,500 trees to the ash borer. That motivated me.”

In fact, Princeton is losing its street and park trees “faster than the municipality can replant,” reads the release. “The causes are multiple: pathogen and insect attacks (bacterial leaf scorch on red and pin oaks, emerald ash borers on ashes); damage from extreme storms; widespread development; and the demise of aging trees. Unfortunately, Princeton’s natural asset of a mature urban forest is being depleted as many of its large, long-time canopy trees age and die out.”

Ragen worked with Princeton arborist Taylor Sapudar on the planting project. “I live just a few blocks from the park, which I knew was losing trees,” she said. “This just made such good sense. It’s been such a pleasure. It’s so quick to pay back, and I’m so looking forward to the spring for the blooming.”

Anyone interested in memorializing people or events by donating trees should visit the Shade Tree Commission page found on the website