The Keeper of the Trees

Arborist P.O. Mead reflects on his efforts to develop, maintain and preserve Daniel Island’s natural beauty

Like a Spanish moss-strewn live oak tree that’s been properly-pruned, Daniel Island is a community born of the idea that with careful planning, creativity and capital an “island town” with the charm of downtown Charleston could literally be carved from the wild. The island, once ruled by the rough, unadulterated rawness of the South Carolina Lowcountry, has been transformed over the past quarter-century, hewn carefully from the grip of Mother Nature.

Hundreds of developers, architects, engineers have contributed to the construction of the island town, having been hired by the Daniel Island Company (DIC) and/or their project partners to assist with new construction projects. But when it comes to who to thank for the care of the many trees that line the community’s roadways and dot its nooks and crannies, it is a far different story.

It is only certified arborist P.O. Mead and his team of eight who work on Daniel Island on a consistent, week-to-week basis maintaining the island’s green, yet polished look. In fact, Mead is the only dedicated arborist who’s been hired by the Daniel Island Property Owners Association (DIPOA) for maintenance tasks…ever. When it comes to keeping the island’s natural aesthetics up to par, defining the delicate balance between the swamp and society on Daniel Island, it’s really just Mead.

Mead continues to work for both entities, dividing his time between tasks related to the Daniel Island Company, work developing untouched parcels carved out of the island’s thick wilderness and the DIPOA’s work in managing much of the tree-filled greenspace.

“The most important part of tree preservation here on the island is done through the development company,” says Mead, an easy-going hard-working kind of man. “They give me an avenue to perform what I do. The thought process that goes into it, the positioning of parks, the positioning of roads, what trees are going to be kept and defining which are less desirable, they’re done with a total team effort. It’s a huge process that goes into the designing of what ends up being the finished product.”

Not only did Mead contract on many of the development projects to hit the island in the last two decades, he’s responsible for maintaining trees in each piece of public space on the island that is incorporated into the DIPOA, a workload made heavier each year. And his commitment only grows each year.

“Maintenance is the key to everything,” continues Mead, who was born and raised on James Island and is a graduate of James Island High School and Clemson University. “It’s the key to your car, it’s the key to your house and it’s the key to the trees on this island. And the bigger the island gets, the more property that the Property Owners Association inherits, everything becomes operated on priority-basis. We have to prioritize what’s important: first safety, then maintenance, then beautification.”

The P.O. Mead residents see working on the island today originally worked for his father’s company, Mead’s Tree Service, Inc. Mead’s history on Daniel Island began soon after the DIC acquired the more than 4,000 acres designated for the community and entered into a formal Development Agreement with the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation to develop the Daniel Island Master Plan. These days however, he performs his duties as the head of Mead Land Services, LLC.

But from the beginning, says the modest, mild-mannered Mead, the job of keeping the island’s wilderness pruned and proper is far from a one-man operation. In Mead’s eyes in fact, he simply couldn’t have performed the work he’s done to transform Daniel Island were it not first for the vision of the DIC in planning the community. And even with planning in place, says Mead, it takes a total team effort by the DIC staff to execute that vision, a team effort he feels proud to continue to be a part of.

“The masterminds that have been behind the development, the specific, strategic design of it, the placement of buildings around trees and roads…It was all part of a vision from day one,” he continues. “And it’s a team, it’s Thomas & Hutton, it’s the Daniel Island Company, it’s a bunch of people that are involved.”

And that’s the magic behind the work of Mead with the DIC and the DIPOA across the island. Were it not for the people, the place itself and the partnerships Mead’s made on the island, he wouldn’t have spent the last two decades working here.

“It’s been great to be a part of something from its inception,” Mead goes on. “It’s something even bigger to be associated with the development from the beginning and to have seen it through to the completion of its final stages.”

“When I started, Daniel Island was just a one-lane road. It was just a dirt road going down that left-hand side in front of the Property Owners Association. That’s the only road that was there,” says Mead, his blonde hair poking out from under his baseball cap. “We started with just a plus sign of infrastructure, created when we built the first intersection on the island at Fairchild St., Corn Planters Rd. and Beresford Creek St. Here we are 22 years later, and you can sit there at night, smile and say, ‘we created this.’”

And as proud as Mead is to have had the opportunity to work on Daniel Island for so long and to see the island grow through to fruition, according to the DIC, it is they who are proud for their association with Mead.

“We’ve been fortunate to have a close working relationship with P.O. since the early days of development on the island,” says Daniel Island Company Vice President of Development Bill McKenzie. “In addition to helping us protect trees in areas we are preparing to develop, we’ve worked with him to help maintain and ensure the health of trees in many areas long after development activity takes place. It is with his help and expertise that we’ve been able to ensure that trees on Daniel Island remain one of our greatest natural assets.”

Making Mead’s service on Daniel Island particularly difficult is the work he’s already done. He’s effectively set the bar, and set it high when it comes to helping planners design around nature.

And along with being difficult, his work is also not without controversy, particularly on the development side. It is after all Mead who has the unhappy task of grading large, “grand” trees (particular species of trees designated by the City of Charleston as “grand” when they exceed certain sizes), and when called for, removing those he deems dead, dying, diseased or less desirable.

In the end though, the man believes in his work and he believes in his people, at his own company, at the DIC and at the DIPOA. And for Mead, the proof is in the property itself, and not the awards its design has garnered or the homes sold on Daniel Island.

“You can go back to the communities that have been taken over by the Property Owners Association and compare photos before and after and see what shape they were in then versus what shape they’re in now,” he says, his tone suddenly serious. “It’s then that people realize what the developers are actually doing for the community, it’s at that point that they realize that this process we use now is the same one we used to create what they are so passionate about in the first place.”

As for what Mead is passionate about, aside from bird hunting at his cabin in remote Clair, Saskatchewan in northern Canada, or watching Clemson Tiger football and Indiana Hoosier basketball, it is rooted most deeply in those he serves.

“The trees are my clients,” says Mead with a smile and a nod to a nearby live oak. “And the people, well they are a means to allow me to work with my clients.”

 

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