A tree older than Columbus finally succumbs to old age

Church has not decided what to do with the wood that will pile up

James Barron, New York Times News Service
13:04 October 17, 2016

Basking Ridge, New Jersey: The locals say that George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette — the Frenchman who bankrolled the American patriots with cold, hard cash — picnicked in the shade it provided. Rank-and-file soldiers are said to have rested under it, gathering strength before going on to beat the redcoats.

It is a huge oak tree, now estimated to be 600 years old. Arborists such as Rob Gillies consider it one of the oldest in North America. It is a local landmark, right there in the cemetery of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church.

On Thursday, he sliced into it with a chain saw.

Not the trunk, rotund and rotted inside and long since shored up with cement, like a cavity in a bad tooth. Gillies, who is 52 and has long experience in teasing extra life out of old trees, took aim at the upper reaches.

“It’s hard to even talk about this,” Gillies said. “I really wanted to save the tree.”

But a dead tree cannot be saved, and dead it is, Gillies said. It was declared unsavable last month after the latest round of soil tests and consultations with other experts.

Still, it is not gone yet. The church is planning a communitywide “celebration” of the tree’s life on November 6. And while church officials say it will come down in 2017, by coincidence the congregation’s 300th anniversary year, they have not decided what to do with the wood that will pile up. The suggestions are pouring in.

The tree is a passionate subject in this little town about 60 kilometres from Times Square. The tree is a part of the identity of what the minister, the Rev. Dennis W. Jones, calls “a Norman Rockwell-esque town.” He himself wore a likeness of it on his sleeve when he was a police officer here, before divinity school and a career change.

The church has photographs of what look like revival meetings, with the congregation seated under the tree. Jones said children climbed it after Sunday school when they were not supposed to, and couples had their wedding photos taken under it. He said he was surprised, after a television news report on the tree last month, to hear from people who had grown up here and moved away — but still cared about the tree.

So did people driving by on Thursday. Many rolled down their car windows and asked if it was finally being felled.

No, they were told, although some drove off without hearing the full explanation.

“We want to clear the airspace above the sidewalk and the street” before winter, said Jon Klippel, chairman of the church’s planning council. “We have some limbs that wandered a great distance.”

Indeed they have. The tree is wider than it is tall — it stretches more than 45 metres from side to side, while it was only about 30 metres tall before Gillies went to work.

Its very size is testimony to its age.

“It’s certainly been around longer than anyone that we can tell in our recorded history [except maybe the Lene-Lenape Indigenous Americans],” the local historical society declared on its website. If the 600-year-old age estimates are correct, its youth coincided with Britain’s defeat of the French in the Battle of Agincourt and Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. And, of course, all of the voyages by explorers such as Christopher Columbus.

It was measured, tended and loved over the decades. Then came the summer of 2016. The old oak was done in, not by an April that was the cruelest month, but by a nasty August.

“On August 2, we saw some dark brown leaves,” Klippel said. “Day by day, there were more. Between August 2 and August 14, it all went brown, and it wasn’t the usual variable range of autumnal colours coming on early.”

The church called in Gillies, who climbed the tree — with permission, and not when the children from Sunday school were around.

The conclusion? “The tree was so old, it wasn’t able to withstand the intensity of the heat we had,” Klippel said. “We had these stretches of heat, and then a deluge.”

Gillies said the tree responded to the initial “heat stress” by closing off the pores in the rings deep inside, behind the bark. “These shut down, so it doesn’t transpire,” he said. “Then it was inundated” by almost 12 hours of heavy rain. “The roots were soaking because it couldn’t process the water,” he said.

Jones said that some people wanted to keep the tree propped up for longer than next spring. “But it would be a dead tree, not a symbol of a living church,” he said.