One gray day in early November, hundreds of mourners gathered at the Presbyterian church in Basking Ridge, New Jersey to celebrate the life of one of the community’s greats. The fallen is the Basking Ridge oak, a centuries-old sprawling tree that looms protectively over the church’s Revolutionary War-era graveyard.
After sheltering generations of churchgoers and Basking Ridge townspeople for services, picnics and gatherings — and once, rumor has it, shading George Washington and his troops for lunch — the oak’s time has finally come. The aging tree, which was filled with cement in the 1920s and is propped up by numerous cables, has been struggling to grow full foliage, slowly fading for the past few years. In September, experts decided it was time to go. The full removal process will be complete next year.
For memorial attendees like Pat Haines, a 50-year resident of Basking Ridge, the tree’s passing means much more than a simple change in scenery — it’s a tear in the fabric of the community.
“It’s been here for so long, obviously, that you somewhat expected it to always live,” she explains. “It’s sort of comforting to see something that has been created and given out so much beauty over time. I’m going to miss that.”
For others, like Patricia Shanley, the tree is a passage to history. “Somehow, people did not cut it down,” she says. “There was a reverence toward this tree that taps into something very deep in people. When this road came through, when they wanted to expand the church, when the Revolutionary War people were here and wanted to cut it down for firewood, this tree was left.”
White oaks are notoriously hard to date, but based on historical record and the size of its trunk experts are confident that the Basking Ridge tree is at least 500 years old. In 1717, settlers chose to build the first version of the Basking Ridge church, a small log cabin, next to the tree.
“Think about the 1700s,” explains Rob Gillies, a local arborist and one of the oak’s caretakers. “Go back to that time and think about what the forest looks like: lots of virgin trees, with chestnut trees easily 20 feet in circumference.”
Settlers looking for a place to build a sacred space would be on the lookout for a unique marker that stood out in an old growth forest. Even 300 years ago, the Basking Ridge tree would have inspired the awe and reverence Patricia Shanley mentions.
For colonial settlers, one of the most alluring characteristics of the New England and mid-Atlantic area was the thick forest and endless usable timber. After quickly developing wood-intensive industries like shipbuilding, the forests of England were mostly logged out by the mid-1500s. The English were desperate for wood: not only to heat their homes and fuel fires, but also to keep the British naval fleet well-stocked to continue the endless European power struggles of the 17th and 18th centuries. New Jersey’s woods provided a new cash flow for Europeans settling in the area, and the abundance of species like white oak — a prized shipbuilding material with waterproof qualities — proved especially crucial in setting up a thriving timber industry in the New World.
How did the Basking Ridge oak survive this budding new lumber business? The sprawling branches and thick, squat trunk that give the tree its enduring character may have also made it unappealing to colonial lumberjacks on the hunt for quick cash.
“A settler may think: with my trusty ax, and an awful lot of sweat and blood, this tree will only yield 12 feet of clear wood,” Gillies explains. Felling a thick tree like the Basking Ridge oak could take months in preindustrial America. Carving boards by hand out of knotted, twisted limbs would be another unwelcome chore. With taller, straighter trees nearby, it’s likely that the Basking Ridge tree escaped death by the force of its personality.
While the age of the Basking Ridge oak generated a slew of media attention, in the grand scheme of history the tree was hardly unique. “We’re impressed by old trees because, for us, 100 years is a long time for a tree to survive,” explains Gillies. It’s easy to assume that the tree succumbed to old age, but oaks are a notoriously hardy species. Two of the America’s most elderly trees, the Seven Sisters Oak and the Angel Oak, are estimated to be more than 1,500 years old.
Gillies stresses that it’s not accurate to say climate change is completely responsible for the tree’s death. But he does note that worrisome new weather patterns in New Jersey are detrimental for trees — and white oaks in particular, which lock down their inner pores in extreme heat to preserve water absorption. A Climate Central analysis of temperatures in the Basking Ridge region found that the odds of a 15-day stretch of above 90º F rose sevenfold in 85 years, from one in 27 years in 1931 to a one in four years chance today.
In August, two weeks of this extreme heat in Basking Ridge was immediately followed by tumultuous thunderstorms, overwhelming the oak’s roots with rainfall. For the tree, already weakened by old age, dry ground from snowless winters, increased road pollution and numerous other external factors, the stress was simply too much to bear, and it was unable to process the water due to its closed pores.
“The storm could have happened at any point in the tree’s history,” says Gillies. “But we feel we can say this storm immediately lead to the tree’s death. When we’re young, we can party all night — when we’re old, we can’t party as hard.”
In the aftermath of the oak’s passing, the Basking Ridge church is taking care to preserve the history the tree helped create. A GoFundMe page has been set up for the tree’s dismantling, with much of the funds earmarked to ensure that the graveyard won’t be disturbed when removing the tree’s roots. A church committee is deciding what to do with the wood, possibly turning its remains into a communion table.
And the tree, in a way, will live on. In 2000, Tom Ombrello, a biologist at Union County College, took a trip to the Basking Ridge church to gather acorns from the oak. “I thought it was the most beautiful tree in the state of New Jersey,” he remembers. A few years ago, church elders auctioned off tree saplings from Ombrello’s acorns to pay for restoration of the cemetery, selling more than 100 tiny oaks to local parishioners. The saplings are scattered at homes around the area, but Ombrello kept one for his own arbor. He kept an extra sapling in his nursery that will be planted on the church grounds come spring.
“These trees are testaments to where history took place,” Ombrello says. “Once they’re gone, unless there’s maybe an offspring, we tend to forget about them. I think it’s nice to keep the progeny going long after the original trees are gone.”
Molly Taft writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow her at @mollytaft.