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 Tuesday, July 25, 2006 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Alan Nelson - CU-Boulder's "Tree Man"
By Jon Leslie, Publications and Creative Services

Grounds Manager Alan Nelson has tended the plants and trees on the Boulder campus for the past 20 years—a passion that has led many at the university to know him as CU-Boulder"s “tree man.”

“Of all the different things I do in my job, what I enjoy the most and have the most passion for is the plant material and especially the trees,” said Nelson. “They"re so interesting, and we"ve got some really unique things here on campus. In many ways it"s a tribute to my predecessors, in that they were willing to push the envelope and try things that on paper may not grow here. They were able to have success with some of these exotic things.”

Nelson credits the stone construction, size, and positioning of many campus buildings for helping to create microclimates conducive to a variety of trees that would not typically grow in Colorado. Of the 4,100 trees on the central campus, Nelson considers those in the Norlin Quad some of the most unique, including his favorite tree, a northern red oak near Hale Science, and a handful of cottonwood trees that date as far back as 1876—the year the university first opened its doors onto a dusty plain.

“The Norlin Quad itself is outstanding,” said Nelson. “There are a number of original trees there. Someone doing research a couple of years ago found and sent me a copy of an invoice for 32 cottonwood seedlings for 27 dollars, dated right around the time of Old Main. I don"t think there are more than two or three of those still here, but there"s one at Old Main that seems like it"s here for the long haul.”

Beyond his duties as grounds manager, Nelson leads tree walks on campus in conjunction with the CU Museum and the Heritage Center, educating participants on the history and significance of CU-Boulder"s trees. He also participates as a volunteer actor with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and is entering his fifth season this summer. He considers performing outdoors in the Mary Rippon Theatre among his most memorable on-campus experiences.

“You want goose bumps, that"ll do it,” said Nelson. “There"s nothing like it when there"s 800 people sitting there and it"s a perfect night. That"s a magic space. I"m really convinced.”

While Nelson is quick to credit the university"s Tuscan vernacular architecture and mountain backdrop for its reputation as one of the country"s most beautiful college campuses, there are moments when he is struck by the significance of his work as CU-Boulder"s “tree man.”

“It"s a pretty awesome feeling,” he said. “I don"t always connect with it when I"m at work, but one of my favorite things to do is to come early to the Shakespeare Festival and sit on the quad, without my communications equipment, not driving a work vehicle. That"s when it really hits me. That"s when it really sinks in.”

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