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He’s no quarterback: Brookline’s Tom Brady watches the trees

Brookline tree warden Tom Brady, a white man with a beard, is pictured wearing a neon vest.
Brookline arborist, conservation administrator and tree warden Tom Brady. Photo by Artemisia Luk
October 24, 2023

Whenever Tom Brady is driving, he always looks up at the trees. “It never stops,” he said. Despite his football-famous name, this Tom Brady isn’t a professional quarterback. He’s the town of Brookline’s arborist, conservation administrator and tree warden. He spends much of his time examining the tree canopy through his windshield.

Arborists, he said, can’t turn off that leafy vigilance.

“It’s always on. We’re looking for broken limbs, hanging branches, things that are obstructing traffic signals, and if it just doesn’t look quite right, we’ll make a stop to see what’s going on,” Brady said. “[We’re] looking for canopies that might be dying, canopies that are flourishing.”

On a sunny Wednesday in early October, Brady was out and about in Brookline, eyes on the trees, assessing as he drove around town during his midday rounds. He is charged with maintaining Brookline’s enviable tree canopy — some 60,000 public trees, including 12,000 street trees.

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Very few leaves had begun maturing into their autumnal brilliance in early October when Brady stepped into his black Chevy Silverado with Brookline’s town seal on the side and orange traffic cones in the back. A scanner broadcasting the town’s police, fire and public works departments’ communication provided steady background chatter as Brady drove to Chilton Street. He parked, then pulled on a neon mesh vest and a white hard hat before approaching the two-person crew contracted from North Eastern Tree Service. Branches and twigs littered the road as the cherry-picker operator sawed dead wood from a red oak tree. “After 15 years, he knows the town. He knows my problem spots,” Brady said.

A budding interest

The tree’s dead wood is normal for a red oak of its size, Brady said, as he decided to add the red oak to his watch list. He fetched a tablet from his truck and pulled up a geographical information system (GIS)-based tree-tracking program built for the town of Brookline in 1994. On a Google Earth-style aerial view of the town’s streets, trees with outstanding work orders show up with a pink halo or as pink dots. The same markings in blue denote recent watch list additions. Brady tapped on the tablet, giving the red oak a blue halo.

Brookline tree warden Tom Brady holds a tablet device with color-coded dots to represent different trees.
Brady tracks and labels trees on a tablet. Photo by Artemisia Luk

Brady, 55, first understood that his professional path might trend botanical when he was 13 years old and working in a research greenhouse in Burlington, Massachusetts. “By the time he went to college, “I knew I wanted to do something with green and so I started with trees, and it turns out I was right on my first choice. I love working with the trees ” he said.

In 1996, he started as Watertown’s tree warden, historic preservation agent and the town’s first conservation administrator. In 2000 he came to Brookline.

“My predecessor and my predecessor’s predecessor, and his predecessor and so on and so forth have all done a tremendous job with the street canopy,” he said.

In 2021, the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions recognized Brady as Massachusetts Conservation Administrator of the year.

“There’s only one of him and he does three jobs,” Liz Erdman, chair of Brookline’s tree planting committee, said. The Brookline Urban Forest Climate Resiliency Master Plan, released in 2021 (Brady calls it his “blueprint”), addresses tree canopy shrinkage, and climate change more broadly, with key staffing and tree planting recommendations in ways that affect Brady’s work: Two full-time staff will join his team next July and Brady’s role could shift either to full-time tree warden or conservation administrator.

In the meantime, “it’s nonstop,” Erdman said. “When we have a weekend storm, there’s a crew that got up at four in the morning the moment they heard that a tree was down,” she said. “There’s kind of this very hidden team that’s taking care of our community without a hitch.”

Verdant with variety

From Chilton Street, Brady drove to Mason Terrace to check in with a crew doing routine maintenance.

“It’s a pruning of the trees for health, safety and structure. They go to every publicly owned tree along the way,” Brady explained.

Most days, Brady makes four to five tree-related stops before arriving at his town hall office for a few hours before heading out again in the early afternoon. On this particular Wednesday, maintenance wasn’t the only thing on his mind. “The fall tree planting is underway. Eversource has crews in town doing pruning. [There’s] a weather event that might be impacting us on Saturday,” Brady said.

Next, Brady pulled over to talk with a private tree crew hired by a resident. A neighbor had called Brady’s office with a tip about the trees’ removal. Large chunks of tree trunk lay on the ground, along with sawdust. The smell of freshly cut wood wafted into Brady’s truck.

The private crew “took down a couple trees and that perhaps should have triggered a stormwater bylaw review of engineering,” Brady said. He would pass along photos he had taken, as well as information from the crew, to the town’s engineering division.

Brookline tree warden Tom Brady shakes hand with another man. Both are wearing neon, high-visibility clothes. Brady has on a helmet and goggles.
Brady checks in with a tree worker. Photo by Artemisia Luk

In addition to managing the town’s in-house and contracted tree crews, Brady vets tree-related resident requests. He dispatches crews when cars crash into trees or storm winds blow branches into streets, and he keeps in touch with partners including the USDA Forest Service and UMass Extension. He works with the town’s tree-planting committee to determine where to plant front yard trees, and which kind. The town plants some 400 trees per year, and when a tree of any age falters, Brady makes the final, difficult decision about cutting it down. He also keeps in touch with local private arborists and tree services.

“Trees don’t know geopolitical boundaries,” Brady quipped. “So if there’s stuff going on in these yards, it’s probably going on with my trees.”

Instant gratification and the future

At its core, Brady sees his job as risk management: figuring out which trees’ maintenance to prioritize and treating emerging threats, such as diseases. That includes beech leaf disease, which felled the giant 150-year-old beech tree at the St. Aidan’s housing development in 2022. In early October, Brady checked beech trees on Longwood Mall, noting blemishes unrelated to disease.

“Every disease we ever found started with, ‘We don’t know anything about it,” he said, looking at a leaf. “So this is yellowing, and you see this is kind of across the whole leaf — and that’s okay. That’s just fall coloration or that’s stress. That’s not beech leaf disease.”

It won’t be clear until next spring if the disease has taken hold in this part of town.

Brookline tree warden Tom Brady holds a leaf in both hands and looks at it while sitting in the front seat of his truck.
Brady checks a leaf for blemishes. Photo by Artemisia Luk

Later, Brady noticed a man walking on a sidewalk. “You get to [know] the people,” he said. “This gentleman is a nice guy, a visually impaired guy. We have to be very careful with our work zones near him because he can’t see, obviously.”

But sometimes people are challenging, enough so that Brady’s tone and cadence shift when he talks about the culture of “instant gratification” that has shaped his work for many years; residents’ expectations have intensified.

“There are enough issues of concern, opportunities to go after, and things to plan for that we could keep busy for 14 hours a day. So you prioritize,” he said. When there’s a storm, for instance, resident requests might be delayed until storm clean-up ends — whether that’s a few hours or a few days later.

“It’s a really unique job in that your expertise is in the trees, but then the public side of it is a huge part of your job,” said Erdman, who’s been on the tree planting committee for eight years. “Keeping the public side of it in check is a dance, and Tom kind of has it down, how to manage that.”

At the town’s tree nursery, ginkgo, locust and cherry trees that arrived last November awaited planting the next day. Brady seemed entirely in his element — with the “living organisms” that pulled him into his profession, the “living tissues” that keep his eyes on the canopy and his thoughts on the future.

“People say, ‘How do you know what you’re doing works?’” Brady said. “And my answer is always that ‘well, if I come back with my grandkids and I walk these streets and there’s still trees, then I know what we did works.”

A tree seen through a half-opened window in a truck.
A tree seen through the window of Brady’s truck. Photo by Artemisia Luk