Anybody who visits Carr Mill Mall during the holiday season is greeted by the most festive tree in town. No one knows exactly who planted the large post oak that stands in front of Townsend Bertram & Company, but it’s been unofficially adopted by the shop.
After Audrey Townsend and Scott Bertram opened the shop in 1988, Audrey took on most of the day-to-day responsibilities of the shop while Scott took care of the gardens surrounding it. When he noticed the large Post Oak in front of Townsend Bertram was damaged from the surrounding pavement about 10 years ago, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
“As a shop, he saw that it was part of our role to beautify our community and keep it clean and lead trash pickups and things like that,” said Betsy Bertram, Audrey and Scott’s daughter. “When he realized the tree was suffering from all the cement and pavement being around it, he wanted to do something to bring attention to it so he thought of the tree lighting.”
For Scott, lighting the tree had a dual purpose: to save the tree and celebrate the community. His initiative didn’t come as a surprise to anybody who was familiar with him. An environmentalist who Carrboro and its people knew well, Scott played an active role preserving the nature surrounding Townsend Bertram and the town as a whole up until his passing last July.
“Even though his primary role was a stay at home dad in our family, he was really well-known in the community because he always brought this positive attitude and spirit of connection to everything he did,” Betsy said.
And it was that spirit that helped Townsend Bertram quickly become a staple to many in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, including Taylor Dansby. A Chapel Hill native, Dansby’s Christmas gifts often came in a Townsend Bertram box.
“I was one of the kids who would ogle at all the exciting gear that just sparked your imagination,” he said. “Back then we didn’t have the internet — looking at a backpack was really engaging.”
Dansby worked at the shop for a few years while he was a student at UNC before Scott began lighting the tree. But when he came back to work with the family three years ago, he jumped right into the process, helping with the grounds crew and getting the lights up.
“It really was a labor of love for Scott — he was an extremely creative, high-flying individual,” Dansby said.
“The tree really manifests his spirit of adventure, exploration, yes to the universe and all-comers are welcome sort of attitude.”
Getting over a mile of Christmas lights on the tree is no small task. So each year, Scott — a professional tree climber — and his friends would spend several days lighting the entire post oak.
The climbers had to use arbor techniques — a much different process than typical rock-climbing that uses shoes without spikes to do as little damage to trees as possible. Nora Bryan, an employee of ArborCarolina and a friend of the Bertram’s, has been lighting the tree for five years, and her husband Chip has been doing it even longer. Their service to the Carrboro community has never gone unnoticed.
“Every time we were working on it, people would stop us all the time and go ‘Oh my gosh you’re the tree fairy!’” she said. “They always thank us profusely and say they look forward to it every year, that it means a lot to them.”
Once people realized the festive post oak was the work of Townsend Bertram, they would often thank Audrey or whoever was in the shop. However, the first lighting each holiday season initially had zero fanfare. It wasn’t until 2013, when Betsy started working for Townsend Bertram, that she planned the ceremony to not only celebrate the work her father and friends had done, but to also bring even more awareness to the tree’s condition.
“I thought, why not do an event around this so we can really bring the community together — around the tree, around the fact that it’s suffering — and bring in the lights and bring out the light in all of the amazing individuals who make up that community and bring them together for a special night,” Betsy said.
At first, the ceremony was just attended by Townsend Bertram employees along with their friends and family. In a few years, however, the lighting ceremony has turned into a town-wide affair.
Ella Bertram, a local musician and Betsy’s sister, is the headline performer. Attendees can warm up with apple cider provided by Weaver Street Market. This year, both the Town of Carrboro and the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce helped sponsor event and the manager of Carr Mill Mall funded the thousands of lights necessary to make the post oak festive.
“In my estimation, it was one of the most cooperative experiences those three entities had engaged in,” Dansby said. “And I think the spirit of Scott was a real driver of that collaborative spirit to pull something like this off.”
Along with lighting the tree, Townsend and Bertram has been raising money to aerate the soil surrounding it. The shop has raised over 500 dollars so far, but needs another 1000 for the aeration process, which would include volunteers from ArborCarolina re-composting and putting shrubs in the gardens where people walk to keep the soil from being compacted again. Bryan guessed the tree is about 75 years old; if healthy, post oaks can live up to 150 years. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how many years trees have left. But if Townsend Bertram is able to raise enough funds for the aeration, Bryan feels optimistic.
“We’ve seen trees really recover from soil remedies and we think it will help that tree,” she said. “The tree’s certainly young enough — my guess is that the tree should only be middle-aged.”
Townsend Bertram plans to use its 30th anniversary celebration to highlight the Post Oak in extra special ways and raise more awareness about the tree’s condition year-round.
But anybody who went to this November’s lighting ceremony may have already seen something something extra special about the tree. This year, the tree-climbers spent a few more days in the Post Oak to make it brighter than ever, with two miles of lights covering its branches in Scott’s honor.
Dansby said that while it’s been difficult to gage the future of the shop without the man who made it thrive for nearly 30 years, those who worked with him knew how significant it was to keep Scott’s spirit alive through this year’s tree lighting. Keeping the Post Oak alive was a cause dear to Scott’s heart, which is why the family plans to raise awareness and light the tree as long as it’s healthy enough.
“I know one of the things that was really important to my dad was that the tree be saved,” Bertram said. “I want to carry his wishes on even though he’s not with us anymore and have that tree be able to be a representation of his rootedness in the community and his desire to make sure that the natural areas and natural beauty we have will flourish.”