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A lost witness to history

When landmark trees fall, the toll can include memories stretching far beyond their branches

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2008
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For as long as anyone in Upton can recall, a stately white oak on Main Street has grown steadily skyward, becoming integral to the local landscape.

In the 1940s, Barbara Burke scuffed past the tree daily along a dirt sidewalk. The world was at war and the oak became her touchstone - to hide behind on Halloween, to pass on her way to school.

Burke, nearly 80, and others are mourning the loss of this 70-foot-tall friend, which after nearly two centuries succumbed to gypsy moths. But Upton has found a way to memorialize the tree.

Its massive trunk will be deeded to the Naval Historical Center in Charlestown, to be used to repair decking on the USS Constitution. "What better place for its wood to reappear?" asked Jim Bates, an assistant to the Board of Selectmen.

When a giant tree dies in the heart of a community - along its Main Street, on the town common, near a ballpark - its absence is as glaring as the sunlight its branches no longer shield.

While there are some pockets of defoliation around the state, Massachusetts's oldest trees are in pretty good shape, said Charles Burnham, forest health director for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. "Every little region has its problem, but overall we're OK," he said.

But certain losses hit hard.

"At my age, I see the passing of many of my heroes, my older brothers and sisters and friends," said Burke, who heads both the town's Historical Commission and the Upton Historical Society. "And every time we lose a landmark here, it's chipping away at my youth."

Wayland had to take down a 300-year-old oak last year after it was struck by lightning. The town monitored the tree for two years after the strike before deciding it had to be removed, said its deputy tree warden, Michael Lindeman.

A beloved old oak that stood in the Newton Centre Playground came down this summer, after it was determined to be "100 percent dead," said Marc Welch, the city's director of forestry. "What drew our attention to it was that it was not dead the year before. But this year, it didn't have a leaf on it in the middle of summer."

Welch said a handful of Newton's trees have died suddenly this year, something he attributed to environmental pressures that can range from insect infestation to simply too much rain, which allows some diseases to thrive.

The Newton Tree Conservancy, which formed this year, hopes to raise awareness about the importance of trees as well as funds to help take care of them, Welch said. A fall kickoff event is planned for Oct. 26, from noon to 5 p.m. at City Hall.

"Trees are clearly a tremendous environmental asset," Welch said. "They increase property values and help mitigate our own impact on the environment."

But trees are also sensitive to the environment, particularly when they are subjected to salt, inadequate irrigation, and poor soil conditions.

Peter Wild, an arborist who treated infested hemlocks four years ago at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Sudbury, says the urban forests that have shaded streets and parks for generations are in serious decline.

"A tree species can live forever technically, but because of adverse weather conditions and people pressures, their life expectancy is shortened," Wild said.

A large tree in early spring can take 400 gallons of water a day from the water table and up to 100 gallons a day at other times. But man-made restrictions, such as foundations, sidewalks, and driveways, can squeeze a tree.

"For all intents and purposes, all our trees are in planters," Wild said. "We've been raking our leaves for 100 years. But that organic material is critical for the soil."

Despite their sometimes harsh conditions, area communities boast their share of giants. Burnham maintains a list of New England's "champion" trees, determined to be the best, biggest, oldest, or only example of their species. Trees that potentially could be placed on the list are evaluated by a formula that combines trunk circumference with height and average spread up top.

"I enjoy seeing the big specimen trees," Burnham said. "You just kind of wonder what they have witnessed."

Local trees on the champion list include a 75-foot shining willow in Wayland with a 124-inch circumference; a 99-foot European beech tree in Weston with a 278-inch circumference and 103-foot spread; and a 44-foot weeping cherry in Dover with a circumference of 144 inches. The list, which dates to the 1980s, also names champions in Newton, Lincoln, Natick, Waltham, and Stow.

And then there's Wellesley, in a category all its own with nearly 70 champion trees listed in 1995, including white pines and black and Norway maples.

"We did have many champions," said Cricket Vlass, who has served Wellesley as a town landscape planner for more than 25 years, "but one by one we're losing them. Some were very mature." And, much as you try, she said, "you can't make a tree last forever. It's so hard to see them decline."

Wellesley has participated in a state heritage tree program, using grants to tend to some of the town's more famous specimens, like the Post Office Oak, standing, of course, by the Post Office, Vlass said, and a large sugar maple in Clock Tower Park.

But some problems can't be easily fixed, such as an insidious sucking insect that is endangering the town's hemlock trees, she said: "We really need a cold winter. That won't get rid of it, but it will knock it back."

The white oak that no longer stands on Upton's Main Street was not on the champion list - that honor goes to a white oak in Oxford. But its loss has been felt keenly just the same.

The idea to donate the tree for Old Ironsides came from Rufin Van Bossuyt, a retired forester and former town selectman. Discussions stepped up this fall as the tree failed and the timing dovetailed with the Navy's planned two-year renovation of the world's oldest commissioned warship afloat, said Bates.

After it was finally felled last week, Van Bossuyt counted the rings and concluded that the oak had lived approximately 175 years. The trunk was also sound, meaning it could be used for Old Ironsides.

"It survived many storms over many years, so it is heartbreaking," he said. "But a big old tree is like an older person. They succumb easily to things."

Doug Keniston's property abuts where the tree stood on Main Street, a stretch of Route 140. He said he led a movement to save the tree five years ago, when it was healthy and the state wanted to cut it down.

"I've been keeping my eye on that tree for quite a few years," Keniston, 86, said as the cutting began. "But nature beat us in the end."

Even though the old white oak is gone, Burke said many pictures of the giant exist. A friend took one every fall, she said, with its leaves blazing red against an autumn blue sky.

But there is also memory, Burke said, and a lifetime lived in the tree's proximity.

"I can always close my eyes and see it," she said.

Globe correspondent Brian Benson contributed to this report. Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net

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