The oldest white oak tree in the country is dying…
And nobody knows why.
Well before Columbus sailed to the New World and even before Gutenberg invented the printing press, there grew a great oak tree in a land that would one day be called New Jersey.
The oak was already old when farmers built a church beside it in 1717. And when the people came and kept coming, a town called Basking Ridge was built around the church that was built beside the tree.
Town and tree would always be inseparable, or so the people thought.
In 1740, English evangelists James Davenport and George Whitefield preached beneath the tree, spreading the word of the “Great Awakening” to more than 3,000 people. George Washington’s troops drilled on the village green in view of the ancient oak, and the general picnicked beneath it with his friend the Marquis de Lafayette. On his way to the Battle of Yorktown, Gen. Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau marched 5,500 French soldiers past the oak and into history — and soon after the tree shaded the graves of 35 veterans of the revolution.
Through war and natural disaster and a thousand storms or more, the tree survived. In the 1920s, four men scooped out part of its rotted trunk and then stood inside it, amazed at its girth, before pouring concrete into the cavity to save the oak. They also added cables and “crutches” to ease the weight of the branches grown longer than the tree was tall.
And when drought parched the community in the 1970s, residents didn’t mind when volunteer firefighters slaked the oak’s thirst. “And if at any time, we have another drought and people are told they can’t water their lawns, they can’t fill their swimming pools, there will always be water for this tree,” a town historian said years later.
But what if, eventually, all the tender loving care isn’t enough? A couple of springs ago, people noticed that the tree was less green in the top of its canopy and its gray denuded branches seemed to scold the sky. They worried over what was happening to their beloved oak — the oldest white oak in the country and perhaps the world. Scientists were called in, plans were offered up, and everyone waited to see what the next spring would bring.
“We had great hopes,” said Dennis Jones, the pastor at Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church. “All eyes were on the tree to see how it would green.”
When it didn’t last month, when even more of its upper branches stayed bare, other experts were consulted. They tested the soil, probed the tree’s roots, checked for beetles and disease. Jason Grabosky, an ecologist at Rutgers University, inspected the tree in mid-June and declared it, after more than 600 years, to be “in a spiral of decline.”
Although Grabosky gave no timeline, residents are suddenly preparing for the worst. Many talk about the tree’s demise as they would a family member’s. “It’s about knowing when to let go,” Jones said.
The tree still stands close to 100 feet tall, and its branches extend more than 130 feet side to side. It anchors the north end of the center of Basking Ridge, a postcard-perfect town about 40 miles west of New York City. It’s a place where no one pays for parking on the main streets, where locals are used to greeting tourists who’ve come from all over the country specifically to marvel at the age and stamina of the town’s most famous occupant.
Of course, there have been other great oaks: The Charter Oak, in Hartford, Conn., was 500 to 600 years old when it fell in a storm in 1856. The Wye Oak, in Wye Mills, Md., was 450 years old when it suffered a similar fate in 2002.
But the Holy Oak, as Basking Ridge’s tree is often called, kept going. It was struck more than once by lightning. It was blasted by Hurricanes Diane, Donna and Dora, then Floyd, Irene and Sandy. Through tornadoes and derechos, blizzards and floods, it buckled and bent. It swayed and swooned. But it never succumbed.
The tree’s sudden failure to thrive is a mystery. Pastor Jones thinks the reason could simply be old age. White oaks usually live between 200 and 300 years. The Basking Ridge oak has surpassed that by several centuries.
No one really knows how or why trees die. Scientists know how they grow, and they know how to reconstruct their past. But they don’t know how to predict their future — except to say that the warmer the planet becomes, the more trees will die.
“Because trees live longer, we tend to view them as timeless,” U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Craig Allen told High Country News two years ago. “You can feel this sense of endurance. In human terms, we would call it wisdom.”
Such wisdom is gained by understanding the past, which trees do right down to their roots, “because they’re tuned to that historic climate window,” Allen said. “They know there are ups and downs in water and sun, and they know how to ride them out, except that it’s become vastly harder in the age of global warming.”
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