When Gail Cagle worked for Wayne County’s conservation district in the mid-1990s, she helped a district supervisor there set up a new organization called ReLeaf Michigan, part of a global movement to restore forest ecosystems. She works there now as an administrative assistant.
One of her tasks was assisting with ReLeaf’s big-tree hunt contest, and she noticed “a fellow named Richard Pomorski kept coming into the office and getting entry forms. He kept coming in because he was deaf and couldn’t call me on the phone. The first year we did it was ‘ninety-four, and the first year he won was ‘ninety-nine.”
Though he works as a groundskeeper at Barton Hills Country Club, Pomorski’s avocation is hunting for big trees. He’s the best tree hunter in the county, where he’s found many state and even national champion trees. In 2009 alone, he found four national champions here: hazelnut, box elder, American plum, and Allegheny serviceberry. And in the 2010-12 ReLeaf Michigan contest, Pomorski found the biggest tree in Livingston County, an American basswood, in Pinckney. He also found a potential new state champion English walnut in Chelsea (verification is pending).
A man of few words with thinning hair and sharply chiseled features, Pomorski says he “liked trees when I was little,” growing up in a rural part of Whitmore Lake, and later studied them when he was “up north in [Alpena Community] College” working on his forestry degree. Interviewed with Cagle, who often goes tree hunting with him, Pomorski tells how he stalks the big trees: “You got to look every day, when you’re driving. Most I find by driving.”
“He’s always looking,” says Cagle. “When he and I are together, he’ll have the measuring tape with him. In the summer, he goes out on his own on his Harley-Davidson because of the [cost of] gas. He takes M-36 [and] goes into Pinckney and Hamburg. But he’s always looking, and he’s ID’d trees even in the dead of winter from the bark.”
“In the winter, you can see a farther distance in the woods,” explains Pomorski. “Then I get excited, happy.” Though he looks every day, he says finding big trees “just takes time. You might not find any for months.”
Pomorski looks for big trees in places where a kind of benign neglect may have spared them, particularly old cemeteries and old houses. “He found a Camperdown elm in Plainfield, in the cemetery off M-36,” says Cagle. He also checks parklands for big trees, but Pomorski finds “most are on private property. I would say probably eighty percent.”
This can lead to fraught confrontations. “The new coordinator [of Global ReLeaf], he’s very reluctant to verify without getting the owner’s permission,” says Cagle. “But sometimes Richard will just go up and start measuring.”
“If somebody’s home,” says Pomorski, “I knock on the door.”
“Sometimes, if they’re out there shouting at him, ‘I’m going to shoot you,’ he doesn’t know they’re saying anything,” laughs the tall, rangy Cagle.
What’s the big tree hunter’s favorite tree? “Probably the white oak or the American elm, tall and like an umbrella or a vase. I love cottonwoods when they’re big and healthy, though their sap sticks on the car.”
But he’s reluctant to pick favorites. Mostly, he says, “I just like to be around trees.” So much so, says Cagle, that when they pass a spot where the land has been cleared for construction, she can hear him murmur, “murder.”