The arborista: Trees don’t have a better friend than Edith Makra

By Judy Hevrdejs
Chicago, IL (April 21, 2011)- Edith Makra is an unabashed tree hugger, urban forester, arborist and community trees advocate at The Morton Arboretum. Yet those titles don’t really pin her down.


She is a cheerleader for these woody perennials who’s as happy pulling on sturdy boots, grabbing a shovel and digging into the earth to plant a tree as she is at defending the rights of trees – and the people who love them – in all sorts of public forums. She understands how important they are in our lives and environment and she knows their idiosyncrasies.
Which is why when good trees go bad, you can bet someone will call Makra. The callers – frustrated tree owners, disgruntled neighbors, the police, municipal tree commissions – are as diverse as the problems. Acorns drop and dent a car. Smashed female ginkgo seeds stink up a patio. Apples fall and bees arrive. Bud scales, the tiny structures protecting buds in the winter, drop and clutter driveways.
Makra wants you to see things from the tree’s perspective. “We take trees, which are forest creatures, and put them where we live and try to live around them,” says Makra, during a chat in her office at the arboretum in Lisle. “All these trees are just doing what nature intended them to do. But they’re not always the best choice for living next door to or under or around or in between.”
Falling acorns and bud scales aren’t her only focus, of course. Tree preservation, whether it’s a patch of woods or a single tree, has been a hot-button issue since Makra arrived at The Morton Arboretum more than eight years ago. Callers ask: “Why are these trees coming down? Why do they keep planting the same invasive maple?” she says.
As one of Mother Nature’s collaborators, she helps communities deal with their tree issues, from preservation policies to choosing trees. She urges people to advocate for trees in their hometowns, perhaps joining a citizens tree or environmental commission, reminding them that, “The urban forest starts outside your window.
“Trees have such an important role in protecting air and water quality, wherever they are, but when they thrive in communities, they provide distinct environmental services forest trees do not.” She ticked off a list that includes keeping the community cool (via heat island mitigation), conserving energy by shading and protecting homes, and buffering communities from noise.
“Trees shelter communities, anchor them to the natural world and add beauty and character,” Makra says. She has been preparing for her current role since childhood. Her mother, Vilma, and late father, Emery, immigrants from Hungary, raised their three children (Makra has an older brother and sister) in Westmont. The youngsters helped out in the garden. On weekends, the family would walk the grounds at the arboretum. “My parents just loved nature,” says Makra, 49. “I joke that my love for trees is a genetic thing because my mom loves plants and my dad was a carpenter.”
Her formal tree schooling began with the College of DuPage, included internships at The Morton Arboretum, followed by forestry studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There she found what she calls the real magic. It wasn’t just trees that fascinated her, she says, “It was people and trees interacting and getting to know one another.”
Post-university, she worked as a field arborist with a tree company in Chicago’s northern suburbs. Then Openlands, a regional land conservation group, decided to raise public awareness about trees. Partnering with community groups to plant trees in the city, they called the program Neighborwoods and hired Makra, its first urban forester, to coordinate it.
Jerry Adelmann, Openlands president, met Makra in the ’80s when she arrived at the not-for-profit’s Loop offices. She brought with her “a combination of things, but principally it was her knowledge,” he remembers. “I think her passion and conviction certainly contributed as well.”
Makra remembers her first day at Openlands: A stack of messages from groups wanting to plant trees included one from a persuasive school principal in Lawndale who wanted her for an Arbor Day program. Makra contacted George Ware, her mentor at Morton, who helped her fill her tiny Renault with 5-gallon paper pots of trees.
“I don’t remember the name of school, but I remember the cute little kid who changed my life,” she says. “This little girl in a white and yellow dress was digging her heart out with a shovel and I looked at her and said, ‘This is cool. This I gotta do.’ That was really my taste of people connecting with trees in a way I would have never anticipated.”
Mayor Richard Daley, who had read about Neighborwoods, tapped Makra to launch Chicago’s GreenStreets program. An urban forestry stint in Massachusetts followed before her return to The Morton Arboretum.
She was involved with the U.S. Forest Service’s 2010 tree census (they’re crunching the numbers now) and was amazed by people who invited her to come see their trees, to count them, so much so that the arboretum’s website (mortonarb.org) plans to launch “Tree Stories” on its main page for people to share photos of their trees beginning Monday. “We love to hear about trees and the people who love them,” she says.
If Makra has a strong connection to trees, so do many of us. We weave trees into poems and folk tales. The tree of life is woven through religions, philosophy. “People don’t understand how much trees do for us,” she says. “They’re absolutely rooted in our culture and our lives.”
Last year, she married David Kusnierz “under the oak trees with oak leaves in my hair.” Trees for her June wedding played a role as well: yellow wood, tree lilac. And recently, a friend gave her a necklace with an image of a tree and the word “hugger” next to it. “I’m proud to be a tree hugger,” she says. “People should try it. Don’t be shy. They hug back.”
Related Resources:
Chicago Tribune- The arborista: Trees don’t have a better friend than Edith Makra
The Morton Arboretum
Openlands