Bruce Cameron: Climbing Trees, Raising Cain


Submitted 4 months ago

Change is in the air throughout the White River Valley. New leadership is emerging, and community gatherings have stressed the importance of strengthening our neighborhoods. In response, The Herald begins a new series of interviews with interesting people we’ve met in our sojourn here.

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As a rule, we’ll publish bimonthly stories in this space as part of our ongoing commitment to strengthen the bonds between us all. You’ll meet folks of all ages from all of the towns we serve, learn about what brought them here or keeps them here, what motivates them, and, well, who they are. If you know of someone we ought to feature, please let us know! We have quite a list already, but there’s always room for more.
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If you hang around Randolph long enough, especially if you enjoy the outdoors, the odds are good that you’ll eventually cross paths with a barrel-chested man who’s recently descended from some dizzying arboreal height.

Chainsaw in hand, Bruce Cameron goes out on a limb during a job in his youth. (Provided)

Despite being soft-spoken, this man possesses both an actor’s gift for perfect diction and a reverberating laugh that you may hear—from above—before you even catch sight of him.

R.B. “Bruce” Cameron has been described as Central Vermont’s “patron saint of venerable trees” for good reason. He’s been painstakingly planting, moving, pruning, rescuing, and occasionally felling trees for 57 years, more than 30 of which were spent in the White River Valley.

Born in New Jersey in 1944, Cameron has led a peripatetic life that has witnessed him—within the span of just a few years—figuring out how to synthesize ether as an eighth grader, performing George Bernard Shaw at Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary, getting deliberately kicked out of the Army, and having a life-changing epiphany in the Tunbridge cemetery, before settling into life as the region’s most respected and sought-after arborist.

Branching Out

A child of the 40s and a young man in the 60s, Cameron’s approach to what he refers to as “tree work” is informed by a lifetime of weaving together a broad range of ideas, mind-altering experiences, and philosophies—notably Buddhism, the writings of philospher Alan Watts, and years of independently studying botany, arborism, horticulture, and landscaping.

“I was lucky,” said Cameron, “coming from a family of readers. My dad read all the time, my brother and sister read all the time. Every since I was a kid, I was spouting [nonsense]” he said with a characteristic eruption of laughter.

A free-thinker from the beginning, Cameron’s appetite for reading and talent for performance would eventually propel him into a position as a featured performer with the Alpha Omega Players, a traveling theater group known for playing in churches, theaters, and prisons across the country.

“It was a neat experience,” said Cameron, who was 22 years old at the time. “Having dinner with the warden and talking to all these prisoners backstage … it was quite an experience for a young fella!”

By that time, Cameron had bounced through several acclaimed dramatic institutions, including the Boston Conservatory of Music, Upsala College—where he won the Best Actor Award as the male lead in “Tiger at the Gates”—and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the alma mater of Hollywood icons such as Jason Robards and Grace Kelly.

Along the way, the young actor was also accepted into the American Shakespeare Festival, an opportunity he turned down, electing to tour for seven months with the Alpha Omega Players instead.

“After that, I got drafted into the Army,” he said abruptly, noting the “monumental moment” that set in motion a harrowing sequence of events that ultimately earned him the label of “hostile person.”

“I ended up in the Army, telling the psychiatrist ‘I’m not really into this regimented stuff,’ he said, recounting his 1966 draft order. “I said ‘I’ll fight when we’re invaded. If anyone is threatening my country I’m ready to go. But no, I’m not going over there to shoot peasants.’”

Cameron was eventually discharged from the Army, but not before receiving occupational therapy as a landscaper, then a new subject to him, at a nearby Army hospital.

“What a [half-done] job,” he laughed. “But apparently the people around the hospital had no idea because all I got was compliments!”

Taking Root

After his discharge—and a short period of searching for theater work in North Hollywood—Cameron eventually found himself touring with the Alpha Omega Players again, a tour that would lead him to a life-altering moment.

“I was with the Alpha Omega players … and we played [at] the church in Tunbridge,” recalled Cameron.

“Driving up that 110 valley, it just knocked me out right away. I said ‘wow! What a beautiful, pastoral scene here,’” he recounted. “I hiked up to the top of the cemetery there, sat down and … was in a reverie. [I had] an epiphany of how beautiful this scene was and I thought ‘I’ve got to come back here.’”

It wasn’t long before Cameron’s parents also visited and fell in love with the tiny village along the First Branch, eventually prompting his brother—who was stationed in Germany at the time— to send word to “buy me a farm in Vermont” in the summer of 1969.

Cameron himself would relocate to Vermont at the same time, living with his brother and working briefly as a foreman for Bartlett’s Tree Experts in Woodstock, before launching his own tree care business.

“I could’ve stayed with the theater, but I loved being outside,” he said. “That’s how I got out of the theater and into the trees for good.”

Getting into the trees for good has led Cameron to adopt a more holistic perspective on life, the universe, and everything— a perspective he wholeheartedly attributes to the plants with which he’s developed a deep spiritual connection.

“There’s a continuity. That’s what trees do, they link you up with things,” he explained.

“This whole system that’s here—it’s giving! It gives everything—wood, food, shade, oxygen, you name it,” he said. “I really feel the link viscerally with plants. Having taken LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, peyote, cannabis—I’m afraid it all fits in, for me, very beautifully. This incredible harmony that exists on the planet itself is just really manifested in the plant kingdom. That’s how I feel connected.”

For longtime friend and one-time employee David Atkinson, Cameron’s esoteric streak is leavened by his hardworking mentality and broad understanding of the natural systems within and beyond his work.

“They say he reads a book a day,” laughed Atkinson. “He probably does because he can talk about anything. You pick the subject and he’ll talk until you’re sick of hearing him. He’s quite a brilliant person.”

Describing Cameron as a natural teacher, Atkinson—who eventually started his own tree care business on Cape Cod—believes that Bruce Cameron has “probably been involved with every tree in town, in one way or another.”

Most notably, Cameron’s 1989 redesign of Grant Park, on Randolph’s South Pleasant Street, sticks out in Atkinson’s mind—particularly when he remembers positioning a tree, under Cameron’s exacting direction, precisely in the center of the park.

“We planted that tree three times to get it exactly in the center of those standing stones,” remembered Atkinson. “Digging and moving a tree that big was not fun, but he insisted on perfection— and he got it.”

As for Cameron, who takes obvious pride in properly executing a project— especially stone walls—his heart remains high in the leafy canopies of trees across the White River Valley, affording him uncommon vantage points on a life spent between the branches.

“That’s one of the great things,” he said. “Your perspective on everything changes when you’ve been in the trees all your life.”

-- DYLAN KELLEY

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