Witness Trees

Witness Trees

In a town 10 minutes away from me, a majestic red oak was cut down this week.

Majestic. It’s not often we hear that term anymore. The town paper referred to it as a” decayed icon.” The final portion of the tree left a stump three feet across and the last piece removed weighed 20,000 pounds. The inside was decayed leaving a three-foot wide gaping hole in its center.

In recent years, I have been drawn more and more to trees. As a child growing up in Michigan and Tennessee, I climbed them, picnicked under them, ate their fruit, and hung a swing from them, all while taking them for granted. It wasn’t until I recently started hearing the phrase, “Witness Trees,” that my thinking about trees took on a deeper meaning.

Robert Michael Pyle writes, “A witness tree is a large tree so situated that it can serve as the reference point. The Umbrella Tree, a huge Douglas fir near Deep River, Washington, was a famous witness tree saved from logging for that purpose. In his book A Witness Tree (1942), Robert Frost describes one in a poem called “Beech”: the title tree, having been “impressed as Witness Tree,” allows truth to be “established and borne out, /though circumstanced with dark and doubt.”

“Witness trees,” designated as such by the National Park Service, are venerable specimens on Park Service properties, trees that have “witnessed” key events and people in American history. These might be a Civil War battle, a president, or a runaway slave. When witness trees are so old they’re on the verge of collapse and have to be felled, they’re sometimes turned into wood chips — an ignominious end for something once so proud. The Park Service is legally bound not to sell wood from the trees.

Just think, the tree in my neighborhood was standing before the birth of our nation and before George Washington’s retreat over the Hackensack River to New Bridge Landing. When it was measured in 2010, it measured 80 feet tall and close to 200 feet wide. The trunk was listed as 70 inches in diameter.

In some ways the witness trees are like “The Giving Tree” of Shel Silverstein’s children’s book. But unlike that tree, which had nothing left to give by the end of the story, at least some of the Park Service’s trees can be reborn, thanks to modern science. They’re propagated through genetic cloning, and the clones are replanted where their parents once stood.

This past winter, National Geographic profiled the trees in Yellowstone Park, home to some of our nation’s largest and oldest trees. They had a two-page pullout that showed the size and grandeur of these trees made even more remarkable by the ant-sized scientist in a red jacket, perched high up into the tree, collecting data. National Geographic does this so well.

I carefully pulled out the photos and posted them at eye length of my nursery school students. The kids are naturally curious. When they saw those trees—-it takes a lot to impress kids these days, but that day they were wowed. Those photos were part of an ongoing conversation for many days to come. We learned that the trees were each named. And from the scale of the photos with the scientists in the trees the kids really got a sense of wonder and awe.

A living witness to history—-
Awe is a good thing at any age.