living a Natural Lands life

January 22, 2022

Photo of Paul Felton at 101 standing next to his garden. “Good grief! Almost 101 and still growing trees!” Those were the words that Paul Felton wrote to us in February of 2021, just six months before he died. Now, on what would have been his 102nd birthday, those words have a special meaning. We carry a loss, but also the celebration of an incredible life. It’s good grief, indeed.  

Paul Felton lived a Natural Lands life. Paul’s childhood playgrounds were the forests and streams of what is now Bear Creek Preserve. Paul graduated from Penn State University in 1942 with a BS in forestry and spent his life among trees. He first worked as a forester, then became the first staff member at Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association, and later the executive director of Water Resources Association of the Delaware River Basin. 

Paul’s love of trees was not just his professional calling; he led a project to plant 600 trees in his retirement community, led countless wellness and nature walks for fellow residents, and worked in his personal tree nursery to the end.  

A man stands next to a butternut tree growing from a tree tube in the woods.

Tim Burris standing next to a butternut tree grown from a seed gifted by Paul Felton

Paul joined Natural Lands as a member in 1967, just 14 years after the organization was founded. In 2015, Paul and Tim Burris, the preserve manager at Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary, met at a Natural Lands member event. Like most hikes at Mariton, the day’s trek included a steep walk up the hill behind the management center at Mariton. The climb can wind even a young hiker, but at the age of 95 Paul walked the entire way in a spirited conservation with Tim about butternut trees, American chestnuts, and pawpaws.

Later, he sent Tim a bucket of butternut seeds from trees he’d carefully nurtured at Mariton. Today, those seeds are trees growing strong in Mariton’s forests—a landscape that will never be developed. Paul sent seeds to many other staff members at Natural Lands. Wherever he went, Paul left a forest in his footsteps. 

In 2019, at the age of 99, Paul visited the after-school nature camp at Crow’s Nest Preserve to make a video talking to kids about nature. At nine and 99, they talked about trees, playing outdoors, and what’s most important in life. Paul could have chatted all afternoon with the kids—his love of interacting with budding nature lovers was apparent. “It’s over so soon?” he said, at the end of the video. “But I’m just getting oiled.”

In February of last year, Paul said he was looking forward to planting more trees in the summer. “It’s a wonderful world. It’s so important to help others.” That March, he renewed his Natural Lands membership. He passed away in July, our oldest member—an exemplary individual that demonstrated to all how to live a Natural Lands life.  

Three people kneel on the ground looking at seeds

Paul Felton kneels with friends to look at seeds at Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary.
Photo: Nate Pritchard

Paul’s life reminds us that acts of generosity add up. We can all do something to help, even if it’s small. A tiny seed can become a towering tree. Paul’s legacy lives on, and not just in a metaphorical sense, but in living trees that take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. It’s said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. But perhaps we also rest in the hands of the good people who came before us. You do not need to know Paul to have benefited from his work. Paul’s legacy breathes. You may have the air from one of his trees in your lungs now. 

If you want to honor Paul’s generosity, become a member of Natural Lands, as he had been for so many years. Or join us at one of our many volunteer events this year. We’ll be caring for trees, trails, and the natural world that Paul loved. Or honor a loved one or special person in your life with a tribute gift. 

And so we send these wishes in honor of Paul’s extraordinary life: May you always see luck in your life. May you leave seeds in the hands of people who will plant them. May you find your place, wherever it is, and give yourself to it fully. May you climb hills at 95. May you make new friends at 99. May you plant trees at 101. May you leave a forest in your footsteps.  

Happy birthday, Paul. Thank you for the good grief.