October 3, 2019
I learned to recognize red oaks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, where I worked as a ranger after I completed my undergraduate degree. The red oaks were almost all on a north-facing slope overlooking Lake Wingra. They had been underplanted with sugar maples and some of the wildflowers of the North woods, a patch of false mermaid, yellow trout lilies. It took me awhile to be confident that the red oaks were in fact red oaks, not black oaks, and I convinced myself laboriously, unnecessarily, measuring the end buds. There is so much on those trees to tell you they are red oaks: the shapes of the leaves, the texture of the bark, the whole tree architecture. But sometimes you work things over carefully like this to be certain.
These are magnificent red oaks, as tall and straight as columns in a cathedral. I walked and skied among them hundreds of times during my four years as a ranger. It was a bona fide forest. I once found a dead squirrel head beneath these trees in temperatures well below zero, the skin rolled up around the base of the chin and occiput like a collar. It was resting among the rocks that had lain at the margin of the lake as it had stood thousands of years earlier. What had happened to it?
This was a forest where you could hear barred owls. Late one night, I heard a young owl fly and crash into the branches of a nearby tree. This was a forest where each year I found fungi glowing in the cambium of cut and fallen logs. It was a forest where the springs emerged to feed the lake, where the skunk cabbage and the marsh marigold grew. It was a tiny forest, by most measures, but disproportionately important to me and many who walked through it.
After one of many storms during my years there, I was patrolling in Wingra Woods, and I heard a crack. One hears cracking sounds all the time in the woods, but this one was alarming in a way that I could not explain. I felt as though I were in immediate danger, and I spun to see what was happening. Over my left shoulder, one of the enormous red oaks was shifting, slowly falling. It was impossible at first to tell what direction it would go, and I wondered whether it might strike me. It was falling downslope, parallel to the path I was on, trunk arched like a dancer falling into the arms of his or her partner. It seemed to drop forever. There was time enough to disbelieve, time enough to be scared, and then to be no longer scared. When it landed it bounced, and the ground shuddered so that I could feel it over a hundred feet away.
Did this incident last a second? 20 seconds? or a fraction of a second? I have no idea. We live under the impression that time is continuous and proceeds in a fixed manner. We feel that time marches ahead, perhaps slowing as it banks around a star. But moments such as the falling of a 130-or-so-year-old red oak make clear that time is a plastic frame and that it swells to enclose memories. Our lives are filled with memories like this, and the falling of that one oak is lodged in my mind as deeply as anything I recall. Who knows why?
Andrew Hipp is a Senior Scientist in Plant Systematics and Herbarium Director at The Morton Arboretum. Learn more about the red oak featured in this story.