In 1978, James Urban had a chance meeting with a man named Tom Perry that forever changed the course of his career.
Tom was a microbiologist with a PhD from Harvard. He was working for the Forest Service and was assigned to the urban forest department because, to hear Jim tell it, Tom didn’t fit any other niche. “Tom’s the one who really started looking into this [urban tree planting] enough to really make a difference” Jim told us when we spoke to him in February of this year. “The thing about Tom was that you either had to belive everything he said, or he was a total quack. There was no gray area with Tom.”
Jim was definitely curious about what Tom had to say.
At the time, Jim was running his own landscape architecture office – but didn’t focus at all on urban trees and soils. “I’m not much of a fatalist, but about two weeks after one of my employees told me about how interesting Tom’s work was, a flyer came across my desk that Tom would be speaking in New York. And I said, I have to see this guy. Just on that I bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel room in New York, which at that time was way out of my price range. I met him and we started talking and we literally talked for an entire day. Tom is who first used the analogy of a tree being like a wine glass on a dinner plate. It’s perfect; I’ve never come up with a better one.
At the end of that day I said to Tom, ‘You convinced me. I want to help you. What do you want me to do?’ And his answer was, ‘It’s not my profession. That’s your job.’
With that nudge, I had to figure it out. It was a real challenge. I’m still trying to work on it. My book, Up By Roots, is dedicated to Tom.”