In 1717, worshipers built a log-cabin church in the shadow of a then 300-year-old white oak. The church has been torn down and rebuilt more than once since then, but the tree has remained the spiritual epicenter of the town.

From her perch next to the Presbyterian church, the white oak has witnessed six centuries of history — revolution, communion, war, struggle, strife and celebration. It is rumored that George Washington once ate lunch beneath her branches, and that Betsy Ross is buried among her roots.

Yesterday, residents of Basking Ridge, New Jersey gathered to mourn her passing.

Mourners gather at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church. Source: Jeremy Deaton

“There was a reverence towards this tree that is rarely found, but it taps into something very deep in people,” said Patricia Shanley, an ethnobotanist who grew up in Basking Ridge. “You saw hundreds and hundreds of people showing up to give homage to this tree.”

At 600 years of age, the great white oak was suspected to be one of the oldest trees in North America. And yet, it likely did not die of old age. Experts believe the tree succumbed to heat stress during a stretch of exceptionally warm weather.

Around the globe, severe heat is withering forests, with a prejudice towards tall, old trees like the great white oak of Basking Ridge. In its prime, the tree measured 150 feet across and stood 100 feet tall. Now dead and barren, it rests in the cemetery of the church, waiting to be broken down and carried away.

“You somewhat expect to see it always live, and it’s a sad time when we see it starting to fail,” said Pat Haines, a longtime resident of Basking Ridge. “Maybe it’s sending a quiet message, in a way, to all of us, that each one of us is a gift, just like this tree is, and there is a time when we have to leave.”

Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.