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Old oaks gave comfort to me as I wrestled with mortality

Jan Hearne • Mar 19, 2012 at 8:42 AM

I hate it when I’m right about something wrong. In the fall of 2007, I wrote a column about an oak tree I saw on my way to work. The people in the house had just renovated it, and in celebration, I suppose, planted a lovely oak at the edge of their yard, but they positioned it directly under the power line.

In the column, I wondered if they did that so the utility company would keep the tree trimmed for them — not that an oak needs to or should be trimmed back. Sure enough, the other day I saw that lovely oak tree with its top lopped off. In less than five years, it has gone from seedling to power line obstruction.

Unless I walk up to their door and ask them, I will never know why, of all the trees they could have planted, these people chose an oak, and every time I drive by the house, which is often, it will bother me.

I have a special place in my heart for oak trees, but who wouldn’t? Two of my childhood homes had huge oak trees in the yards. One, in Atlanta, was a special friend.

When I realized my parents were not going to live forever – I must have been about 7 — I was drawn to that oak tree. I put my arms around it, hugged it, then sat down in the well of its roots. It was the first of many times I would turn to nature for comfort, and possibly the most profound.

At 7 years old it’s not likely I could articulate what I was feeling, but I imagine I had some sense of oaks as being long lived and strong.

My first five years had been spent among the live oaks of Savannah, and I loved the way their arms, draped in Spanish moss, swept toward the ground as if to scoop me up.

Live oaks are incredibly long-lived. The Angel Oak in coastal South Carolina is believed to be 1,500 years old. It stands 65 feet tall with a circumference of 25 and a half feet. Its largest limb is 89 feet long and more than 11 feet wide.

Closer to home, an oak tree in Jonesborough is a traffic stopper. Called the Shanks Oak, it is estimated to be at least 400 years old. It was ancient when Civil War soldiers marched through town.

And in Germany, our Sister City Teterow protects the Oaks of Ivanachen, which are about one thousand years old.

In my yard, I have an oak sapling that emerged the first spring I lived there. It and its maple neighbors were quickly overwhelmed by Japanese honeysuckle, which would have choked them to death had I not intervened. (As it was, one maple was deformed by the strangling vines.)

Now, nearly six years later, the little oak is several feet tall, skinny as a string, but growing nonetheless. I will be long gone before it reaches any heft, but it cheers me to think I “birthed” it when I pulled the honeysuckle vines away.

Does anyone plant red or white oaks anymore? We’re so much into faster, quicker, better, right now, that oaks seem unlikely investments for our age. A maple can reach substantial heights in a matter of years; oaks take decades. In fact, the oaks I knew as a child were remnants of old woods that had been thinned out for subdivisions.

If you’re lucky enough to have an old oak in your yard, do me a favor: Go out and give it a hug. If you don’t, why not plant a white or red oak as a gift to the future?

Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Press. Reach her at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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