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The Passing of the Sentinel

April 20, 2018

A mighty oak stood within Glacial Park in McHenry County for over 400 years. It stood watch over the savanna as Indian hunting parties readied for winter, as European settlers claimed their stake to the land, as Union soldiers marched off to places called Gettysburg and Antietam, as young farmers raised families, and finally as the McHenry County Conservation District arrived to protect it.

Imagine the life of this tree: An acorn found life during a violent August thunderstorm that claimed its parent tree in a single flash of lightning. The same powerful winds sundered the fragile bonds joining stalk to stem and swept the nut groundward, where chance brought it to rest in an abandoned deer mouse nest among the wood betony leaves. Hidden from view and shielded from the intense summer sun, the acorn burrowed down into the centuries-old humus of the savanna floor until the tug of accumulated moisture fractured its tough outer shell and released the birthroot to delve deep into the richness of the soil. Unbeknownst at the time, this would mark the birth of The Sentinel.

For every acorn that germinates, the first years are games of pitch and toss. Rutting bucks, full of velvet itch, took the seedling’s twin brothers on the right and left. Mice famished by the frigid winter bore down on its soft cambium layer, spared from complete girdling by a February thaw that collapsed the rodent mouse tunnels under the snow and exposed their inhabitants to hungry owls. Once or twice, fire licked at the bark, only to be beaten off by sudden wind shifts.

So time elapsed, measured not by days and years but by blooms and burns, rains and drought, flights of passenger pigeons and the bugling of elk in the autumn. When moccasinned feet eventually gave way to farmer’s boots, the oak had long passed the century mark. Huge lower limbs stretched across the clearing left by the death of its parent tree centuries before. Deep shade surrounded the huge bole on all sides, but a deep peace pervaded the glade as well. An ethereal peace, born of long watching, as only an oak rooted in the gravel and cobble of a continental glacier can gather.

Perhaps that peace of that clearing drew the sorrow of a family’s loss, burying their dead children beneath its soft embrace and asking those limbs: “Never forget where they sleep.” That peace continued to guard them long after the humble wooden crosses crumbled into dust and the graves lay forgotten for twelve decades. That same peace knew, on the day of the cemetery’s rediscovery and rededication in 1997, that its long watch lay nearly completed.

A few years later, a violent April thunderstorm claimed the life of The Sentinel, tearing its lower limbs asunder and weakening the 400-year-old trunk. The final collapse came a few weeks later. The Sentinel lay upon the ground, a half-millennium’s journey complete. Yet, around its fallen body, two dozen saplings felt the flush of a sun whose full light had not kissed the ground of the savanna since the first European settlers touched the sands of the Virginia shore. And the long journey began anew.

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