Everyone has a Tree Story

“Everyone has a tree story.”

Chris Imhoff, our Director of Program Development, would know, as she’s been working with TreePeople since 1979. They say when you work in nonprofit, you wear a lot of hats. In Yurt Village, we like to say that Chris has worn them all.

Chris Imhoff sitting on the ground in the center with some of the original TreePeople staff.

Chris began with TreePeople as an Intern on our Environmental Education team. Since then, she has been a program manager, an executive assistant, a program co-director– and most importantly, a mentor to nearly everyone.  She was even one of the eight on staff during TreePeople’s Million Tree Campaign leading up to the 1984 Olympics!

A young volunteer with the Million Tree Campaign.

TreePeople would not be the same without Chris, and Chris’ life would not be the same without trees.

Back in 1984, in newlywed bliss, Chris and her husband, Phil, packed up their bags and headed off to Europe. Their travels took them to Lago Maggiore in Northern Italy, where luck would have it, they stumbled into a botanical garden just as their pocketbooks began to look thin.

“There was a particular tree that had dropped a lot of fruit, a crabapple tree. When you are young and poor and backpacking, any free food that you find on the ground is a gift, right?” Chris said as she vividly remembered the cool shade draping over the two of them while sitting under the tree. To this day, Chris swears these were the best-tasting apples she ever experienced.

The apples left such a deep impression on both Chris and Phil,  that they mailed some of the seeds in an aerogram to Phil’s father, Norm, who loved to garden.

There was no expectation the seeds would make it all the way to Dunsmuir back in California and Chris, as a Tree Person, knew that even if the seeds did arrive and the tree took root, there was a big chance that it would not bear fruit.

Just like the love between Chris and Phil, the tree grew long after they returned from their honeymoon adventures. The two would return every winter to Dunsmuir to visit Phil’s family of eight siblings and the first thing Chris would always do was check on the trees.

“Every year I would prune it in hopes that it would bear fruit. It didn’t even occur to me that it already had.”

She also spent this time bonding with her father-in-law, Norm, in the garden.

Norm with Chris and Phil’s daughter at their family home.

This was the place that they became family together.

Norm and Chris connected so much over the garden that one Christmas, he gave her a box full of pressed leaves from the crabapple tree. Those leaves were a reminder to Chris of Norm’s love and that their crabapple tree was alive year-round– not just during the winter months when they came to visit. Those leaves now hang in glass frames above Chris and Phil’s bed.

Norm is no longer with us, but his memory lives on in his garden that still grows.

Chris and her family happened to travel to Dunsmuir this past fall for a wedding and as always, the first thing that she did was check on the trees. For the first time, Chris saw her, Phil and Norm’s crabapple tree in fall. It was beautiful to see the leaves changing color and as she got closer she realized something amazing–there was fruit!

“I couldn’t believe it! I ran to go get the kids and Phil. We picked the apples and brought them in and all these memories came flooding back. The crabapples had pink and white muddled meat inside and they tasted just as sweet and wonderful as I remembered from when we were in Italy. It’s pretty incredible if you think about that little seed in the mail– and it grew into this tree.”

Gathered around the table, sharing the fruit of their honeymoon, Chris couldn’t help but think of Norm and how his care for the tree lead to this special moment. Life had come full circle for Chris’ family.

Love of family started with her husband, but over the years it grew branches. “There’s a connection to us, to the trees, to the land, to our family.”

TreePeople has a saying– “Trees need people, people need trees.”

People are able to connect deeper with their humanity when they interact with nature– deeper to friends, deeper to family, deeper to the love that we grow for them. As we enter into spring and see the Earth come back to life after the winter cold, let’s think back to the trees that have brought us together.

Norm under the crabapple tree with his granddaughter.

As Chris says, “Everyone has a tree story.” What’s yours?

Inspired? Send someone in your family tree a tree dedication to show them how deep your roots grow together.

By Victoria Wolfe

As TreePeople's Annual Giving Coordinator, Victoria Wolfe supports our vision to create a greener, healthier LA by running TreePeople's Tree Dedication Program and supporting the annual fund with a donor-centered approach. She believes in the power of the single act of planting a tree, which means you can often find her out on the weekends volunteering at mountain restoration events. When she's out from behind her desk, you may catch her rock climbing or hiking the beautiful mountains of Los Angeles.