Last September, a group of Shirley citizens met with a certified arborist as he evaluated the condition of a mature Eastern white pine featured prominently in the historic Shirley Center Cemetery.

Although the tree was unlikely to have been planted according to an overall plan, it was no less important in establishing the character of Shirley's historic landscape.

The selectmen and cemetery commission felt that the tree must come down to protect the cemetery headstones from potential damage due to downed limbs. Already, over the past century, the tree, estimated to be about 275 years old, had pushed aside three headstones in the family plot of Rev. Phineas Whitney, the first settled minister of Shirley.

The arborist made suggestions as to how the tree could be density tested for decay, and cabled and pruned to extend its life.

The selectmen seemed amenable to allowing the citizens' group to come up with a recommendation concerning the fate of the tree, and the White Pine Working Group, made up of about two dozen citizens, raised the funds for the densitometer test, to be performed on Dec. 18. In the meantime, however, the selectmen ordered the tree be cut down.

Pleas from dozens of citizens, the working group, and the Shirley Historic District Commission to delay the tree's demise fell on deaf ears, and the tree was to be felled on Jan. 2.

In most such cases, private citizens who have a stake in the treatment, planting or removal of trees in historically significant landscapes are consulted. Here, the WPWG offered to pay for the tree to be tested, pruned and cabled, and to restore the headstones damaged by the tree. If testing proved that the tree was structurally unsound, then it would need to come down. The group asked only for time and consideration, yet was met with silence.

The story of Shirley's "giving tree" is one of missed opportunity. The citizens most involved in historic preservation were told that the town wasn't interested in working with them to find a solution to a problem involving the historic landscape.

But the story doesn't have to end here. It highlights the need for Shirley to develop a landscape preservation plan for the cemetery; a plan that could prevent decisions about specific trees out of the context of the overall landscape, and help the town to anticipate its maintenance needs.

Just one thing: Developing such a plan requires the expertise of the very people who offered to help in the first place.

With compromise you always want to leave the other side with something, if only a sense of respect. To do otherwise is to breed resentment that erodes confidence and creates friction that makes it harder to get things done in the future.

We sincerely hope that it's not too late for the town of Shirley to restore confidence in its decision-making process. If it can, then the tree will go on giving.

(Artwork by Kim Komperda, of Shirley.)