Last Day in the Life of a Bicentennial Oak
The old soldier was showing his age. Several months prior, a large section of the top failed, breaking open to expose a significant cavity near the apex. There were telltale signs at the base of the tree that the end was near. Deciding to remove a living monument to the history of our state and country is fraught with second-guessing and endless questions, but it seemed that the time had come.
The tree was a Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata). The plaque near the base of the tree laid testament to the probability of it being alive when the United States Constitution was signed, and its home was in Gwinnett: the county named for one of the Georgians that signed the Declaration of Independence 11 years earlier. As a seedling, the tree was likely one small member of a larger forest. As it grew along with the county’s agrarian population, the surrounding forest could have been cleared away to expose the future specimen, allowing it full sun and open space to develop to its full potential. Perhaps crops grew right up to its canopy, or cattle took refuge from the summer sun beneath its shade. Could it hear, it most certainly would have perceived the shots of a hunter seeking game in the new frontier- perhaps even distant cannon fire during the Battle of Atlanta as the South lost its grip on the Confederacy. Could it see, it may have experienced the strife of tenant farmers as they scratched a living from the Earth during the Great Depression. Maybe the moon shined brightly over the tree one July evening as Neil Armstrong took his “one giant leap for mankind.” And it was there during the stark silence of 9-11-01, when the skies over its canopy and the nation were a no-fly zone of a nation under siege.
At Downey, we covet trees with a story, with a parallel to history and a window back into time, such as with this magnificent Oak tree. We appreciate the value such trees bring to the landscape and encourage our clients to do what they can to extend the life of those special trees as long as possible- even to care for younger trees while in the vigorous growth stages of their lives in order that they might have a better chance of becoming a bicentennial tree. Development came very close to the base of this oak: asphalt and concrete encroached like flowing lava, and the tree coexisted with its new neighbors for decades. Developers saw the value in the tree and took significant steps to preserve it.
As with all living things, however, time takes a toll. Mature trees eventually experience a death spiral that is as much a part of life as any. The broken top and exposed cavity mentioned earlier was the first indication. A basal resistograph test, drilling into the tree near the ground to determine if the wood inside is solid, indicated the strong possibility of extensive decay or perhaps even a large cavity inside. On the day of removal, an opening in the trunk was found big enough to for a soccer ball! Mounting evidence finally led to the painful decision: the tree must be removed for the safety of those that pass beneath it.
The photos clearly show the process of removal. Limb by limb, the remaining green canopy was reduced to the tree’s framework of huge limbs and attending trunk. Our track lift was strategically positioned in one spot, and yet allowed Dennis, Downey Trees, Inc., Operation Manager to efficiently and completely work his way around the very outside of the canopy, gradually working toward the center. Some of the cuts resulted in a rush of water draining from a limb- evidence of decay inside the structure and infiltration and movement of rainwater. He was also a little surprised to find, in a cavity in a large limb about 60 feet up, a rather enraged Possum! The limb occupied by the marsupial was cut on either side of its den and lowered to give it an opportunity to seek a new home. A crane arrived as the outer limbs were cut, there to assist with the larger limbs and heavy timber that would come down later. The heavy cutting began as the tree was reduced to the massive column of the central trunk. Bringing this down in 6-8 foot sections was time-consuming, yet it was tremendously impressive the see the efficiency with which the tree came down, the solid communication among the workers and crane operator, and always a culture of safety apparent from start to finish.
The most telling evidence of the necessity of the removal came with the lowering of the trunk sections. Witnessing the cutting and removal of the first section, one could not help but be moved by the sheer size of the piece. And solid! The crane operator monitored the weight of the trunk sections as they came down. The first one was 13, 500 pounds (6 ¼ tons)! At least three additional sections would come down later, one of which weighed in at 15,000 pounds. But wait! They were solid! Where was the danger that had been so evident before we started cutting down the tree? The answer was to be found near the very base of the tree, and can be seen in the photo. Weight well in excess of 25 tons was sitting on a narrow ring of solid wood at the very base of the tree. Estimates are that it would have failed within 2 years: a healthy tree would have had a solid core of wood where we found this void off decay.
We are trying to perpetuate the genetic line of the old Bicentennial Oak. Prior to the commencement of the cutting of the tree, we dug seedlings from around it and collected ripened and un-ripened acorns. Unfortunately, the four seedlings collected and potted were ravaged by small animals, so all hope lies with the acorns, which are being allowed to ripen prior to planting in the fall. Perhaps the last day in the life of one Bicentennial Oak is the first day in the life of another. From a tiny acorn springs a mighty Oak: hopefully another Bicentennial Oak will grace the Land of Gwinnett County in 2217!