Posted by: deadmousediaries | April 28, 2017

News from the Path Valley Hotel, Episode #101: The Big Tree

I don’t know how long I’ve been tree crazy. It’s an inherited condition. One of my earliest memories of adventure with my mom was walking out our back door and making the trek onto the farm lane to visit The Big Tree. That was its name. I have no idea what kind it was and of course, it’s gone now. I do remember it stood as sentinel over a small, family cemetery, the kind people carved out on their personal property to keep their loved ones close.

The Big Tree’s partner was a wild persimmon. No matter what fall day we visited, we never found the little orange fruits when they were truly ripe and no amount of determination on my part could keep their tannins from drawing my mouth into a pucker. That was okay; testing them was an important part of the visit.

Our front yard dropped off to the edge of a very busy highway but in the back, a clover field bordered the lane that ran behind our row of six houses. As I got older, I was allowed to walk as far as The Big Tree alone, and I remember that heady feeling of independence. I was a tomboy and a pilgrimage to the Big Tree always promised the chance to catch a toad or a grasshopper, or once, mistakenly, a little snapping turtle –all without parental consent. It never dawned on me that Mom could see me plainly the entire time from our kitchen window. 

I’ve spent a lot of time under big trees since then and on April 7, 2017, my daughter and I and our two friends drove 200 miles to the Presbyterian Church in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to honor and say goodbye to one of our nation’s oldest. A six-hundred-year-old white oak towered over the town’s Revolutionary War era cemetery; it had been standing 300 years before the church was built there in 1717. On Monday, April 24, the task of removing it began.

The tree stood 100 feet tall, spread its branches over 150 feet and was 18 feet in diameter. It has been in failing health for decades. A network of weathered cables and ground supports were evidence of the valiant attempts to keep the tree viable for more than a century until finally there were no more fixes.

The tree dominated the view the instant we turned onto Oak Street. Even in its state of decline, there was a presence about it, a complete majesty, that caused a catch in my throat. We parked and walked to visit, observing first, quietly, and then struck up conversations with the people who knew this tree well as their town’s icon. We all took pictures, too, but nothing came close to capturing what any of us had seen with the naked eye. Some views were never meant to have borders.

This has been a tough year for big trees. In January, we lost one of Franklin County’s oldest when a 100-foot tall black oak toppled in Mont Alto. Even closer to my heart was the loss of a big tree on my little community’s ancient school grounds, one that has always been part of my memories and was part of my mother’s playground.

When it split, its broken bones fell onto the roadway. The first round of debris was removed by a resident with a chainsaw. For weeks after the collapse, the rest of the tree stood in partial ruin until a professional service was called in to finish the job. All the smaller sections have since disappeared, presumably picked up for firewood, but the huge pieces of the trunk still lie by the roadside. Every time I pass it, I am sad it has simply been abandoned, It reminds me of the discarded carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey. All the best parts have been picked over and the remains wait to be swept into the trash. There will be no honor it. Yes, I’m tree crazy. And proud of it.

In Basking Ridge, residents have been preparing for their landmark’s removal for months. A GoFundMe account was established to help cover costs of removal and school kids submitted essays about what stories the tree could tell. After 600 years, there would be much to tell, including the conversations between George Washington and Lafayette who reportedly sat in the giant’s shade discussing strategies for the Revolutionary War. 

Community leaders and church officials have also committed to repurposing all the wood from the tree; none will be wasted. The best news is that another 25-foot tall white oak, nurtured from the acorn of the original tree, has been growing on the other side of the cemetery with plenty of room to stretch for its lifetime. To me that’s all a beautiful story that shows how a community has rallied around an old friend and offered a proper goodbye.

Sometime this summer, I have to take down a hemlock here at the Path Valley Hotel and the thought already makes me sad. It was one of two I planted with my dad. It wouldn’t be so hard if it was sick but it’s healthy, having missed the invasion of the woolly adelgid, the insect that has been destroying so many hemlocks in recent years. Unfortunately, it now towers dangerously over my chimney and its roots are pushing their way to the PVH foundation. I won’t be able to watch as it comes down but will plant a new tree somewhere in gratitude for the time it spent here.

On Friday, April 28, 2017, we’ll mark another National Arbor Day, a celebration that has been with us since 1872. It’s the perfect time to plant a tree and a beautiful reason to take a drive and appreciate the native dogwoods and redbuds while they are in bloom.  If you’re tree crazy too, it’s also a great excuse to hug a tree. Thank it for providing shade, clean air and critter homes –and giving us some stories. 

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Responses

  1. A lovely salute “to trees”. It is amazing what beckons us individually. How loyal of you to make the pilgrimage to honour the demise of that very old tree in New Jersey. If we listen to our heart it will.lead us where we should go.

    • Im touched by your response, Hilary. Thank you! And I love your beautiful turn of a phrase:”If we listen to our heart it will lead us where we should go.” Thanks for reading!

  2. Lovely piece. I too have always felt empathy for trees and enjoy our whispered conversations.

  3. We had one of our trees split and will require work on trimming and cleaning it up. And, unfortunately, we have to take down a tree in our front yard that has been in decline for a number of years. It is so hard to do. It is so difficult to get rid of such living things that take so long to grow. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and good luck with the tree at the PVH!!


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