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The Great White Oak

Terry J
October 11, 2018

     Eighty-nine degrees, a sweltering August day in Chicago.  No soothing breezes moved the air. The curtains hung damp with humidity. Not a sound but the gentle whir of the small oscillating fan on the floor beside me and the children's voices in the distance.  I sat engrossed in a novel, dozing a little from time to time, my head cradled in a comfy pillow. The afternoon was peaceful, quiet, sweet with satisfaction, when suddenly a thunderous CRACK! and THUD!  Then, an eerie silence as the fan lost its power and the children's voices disappeared.  Something was different; the light had changed. No longer were the rooms cooled with shade; no longer was there dappled sunlight on the walls. The blazing August sun had found its way in. I walked toward the back of the house, still not sure what had happened, when I saw through the shades that leaves were pressed against the pane. I rushed outdoors to confirm my fears. Instead of towering over my house and yard, the crown of the old oak tree filled the yard and my neighbor's as well.  Its weight crushed bushes much smaller than it, and wiped out fences and power lines. Its massive limbs dug deep into asphalt and sod. The beloved tree that had graced my yard and given it its unique character was no more. 

     A piece of history was lost that hot August afternoon.  The white oak, which had witnessed the passing of over 300 years, had chosen this moment in time to fall. Might this tree have witnessed native children stopping in its shade, or pioneer families journeying west and resting under its watchful branches? It knew the quiet of the forest before streets and homes and people changed the land. Will one day another of these oaks, sprouted from its seeds, take its place as the oldest tree in the neighborhood? And if trees could talk, will that one tell of my life and times beneath its branches?

     The great white oak that stood high over my house fell in August 1997. A few weeks earlier I had decided to enter it in the Morton Arboretum's Tremendous Trees Contest. I researched how to measure its height using its cast shadow, measured its circumference, and figured out the diameter.  The numbers elude me now, but I know it took four adults to encircle its girth at the base. I remember it being the diameter of my kitchen table, 48 inches, but I never got to measure the height. My tree never got to compete in the Tremendous Trees Contest. It stood sentinel over my neighborhood long before there was a neighborhood. It was among the oldest trees in Beverly, a Chicago neighborhood known for its trees.  The tree was estimated to be over 310 years old. After it fell, I counted 275 rings around a hollowed-out center, which the arborist estimated to be 35 years of growth.  It had been home to a family of raccoons, had richly colored fall leaves, was my own piece of history for a time, and was written up in the local newspaper when it passed.  My Tremendous Tree!

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