HOUSTON—Along the sweltering banks of White Oak Bayou cutting through T.C. Jester Park, Dennis Woodward walks down the embankment wearing a homemade yoke fitted with two plastic buckets.
Woodward makes this journey so often, he moves swiftly. As he steps onto the concrete lining the channel, he drops his shoulders and dips the buckets into the water. Then, balancing the weight between his shoulders, he climbs back up the steep grassy incline toward the park.
"Looking all parched," he says, scuffing his shoes along the dead grass. "Hoping it rains this weekend."
His son, a 12-year-old boy named Miles, helps him lower the buckets to the ground. Then the father and son separate, each carrying a bucket to water seedlings they hope will grow into trees.
"Just a little seedling," Woodward says, "because little seedlings make a forest."
The little forest cropping up around the park was planted by Woodward, who’s spent months nurturing 85 seedlings in a parched patch of grass between the bayou and the boulevard. But a couple of weeks ago, a crew from the city’s Parks Department mowed down a quarter of his seedlings. That made him so mad, he complained to the mayor and city council.
"I don’t know what the guy was thinking when he ran over the trees," Woodard says.
After the devastating drought of last year, when the Texas Forest Service estimated the state lost as many as 500-million trees, civic and political leaders urged Houstonians to help restore the city’s tree canopy. Citizens stunned by the disheartening sight of brown leaves hanging from dead branches in city parks volunteered for organized drives to plant new trees in parks and medians.
Still, even Woodward’s son isn’t surprised about what happened to his dad’s little forest.
"Well, what can you expect?" Miles Woodward says. "You usually ask the city for permission to do something. He doesn’t do it that way."
Woodward readily admits he took the reforestation of Houston into his own hands, proudly bragging that he didn’t even bother asking anybody for permission or advice about planting trees on city property.
"At first, he started calling it a guerilla clandestine covert reforestation project" his son recalls. "But then he started telling everyone about it. So it wasn’t covert at all."
After planting the seedlings, he looked around the park and spotted nearby thickets marked with signs saying "Reforestation Area. Do Not Mow." The signs were placed in areas already thick with healthy trees, he says.
"I didn’t ask for permission," he admits. "I just decided I was going to move these signs."
So there they sat for weeks, purloined signs seemingly forbidding city crews from mowing around Woodward’s nascent forest. Until a mowing crew rolled right through.
"I had signage up," Woodward says. "They had an opportunity to see it. But I don’t know what happened."
City officials aren’t sure either, but they speculate mowers just didn’t see the signs, which were planted in an area where they were accustomed to mowing.
"We discourage you just going in and planting them on your own," says Joe Turner, Houston’s Parks and Recreation Director. "Just contact us. We’ll work a program with you. We have all kinds of adoption programs. And we definitely want to get trees planted."
Dozens of Woodward’s seedlings still stand in T.C. Jester Park, guarded by his unauthorized signage. So it’s possible his skeptical son will have children who someday play in the shade of the trees their grandfather planted.
"Trees take forever," Woodward says. "They’re something that you plant for your grandchildren. People I don’t even know will hopefully be sitting under the shade of these trees."