Celebration and Requiem for the Great Oaks
As a New England landscape photographer much of what I do is inescapably tied to trees. They are almost always a key part of my images. They are invariably either the subject, the framing of the subject or getting in the way of the intended subject. This week I was reminded of both the strength and the vulnerability of trees.
This is a story of two oaks, both ancient and stately. One continues to push the limits of age and grandeur and the other has sadly lost its battle with the random forces of nature.
Friedsam’s Champion Giant Red Oak
The Friedsam Forest is managed by the Chesterfield Conservation Commission and some years ago we cut a new trail which passed two giant red oaks. Not surprisingly the trail is called the Ancient Oak Trail. The trees once stood at the edge of a pasture, but now are surrounded by new growth. Based on size and core samples we estimated that the larger of the Oaks is over 300 years old. We guessed that the great Oak could be a champion, but until last week we had never submitted the tree for an official evaluation. On a recent Saturday, Paul Galloway from the New Hampshire Big Tree Program came down from Walpole to do an official measurement.
The official size of a tree is based on a formula which includes girth, height and the size of the canopy. We discovered that our tree was just about 100 feet high and 16.5 feet in circumference. We were thrilled to hear that, once the calculations were completed, our red Oak would likely be the biggest in the county or at least tied for the honor. More importantly, Paul was impressed with the health of our tree and he confirmed our estimate that the Oak was at least 300 years old.
It is amazing to think that our Oak was already a mature tree when Moses Smith established the first settlement in Chesterfield in late 1761. It has thrived through centuries of bitter cold winters, droughts, and the incursions of settlers. It has witness the entire expanse of United States history and looks back to a time when the land was more spiritually understood by native Americans. Happily our Oak appears to have been prized, by many generations, for its strength and certainly its shade as it eventually guarded the edge of a carefully cleared pasture.
It is exciting to have a champion tree in our forest, but its real value is as a symbol of the enduring strength of our forests and of the importance of preserving them. Our great Red Oak provides hope and a promise that generations to come will continue to be able play and refresh under the soft protection of our trees.
Alyson’s Great White Oak
For years one of my favorite classic trees was the stately giant White Oak enthroned on the height of land at Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire. This tree was unique not only because of its size and age, it was estimated to be over 200 years old, but also because it stood alone against the skyline with the mountains of Vermont laid out before it across the Connecticut River.
The tree had been a comfortable resting place for folks who came to pick apples and to ride the swing suspended from one of its massive limbs. For me, it was a great place to meditate and of course to photograph. The sunsets across the Vermont mountains were spectacular especially with the great Oak standing solidly against the soft ethereal beauty of the crimson sky. The tree’s proudly defiant stance atop the high ridge made it a wonderful photographic subject in all seasons, but it also made it especially vulnerable to the vagaries of nature.
About three years ago, the tree was struck and severely damaged by lightning. Attempts were made to preserve the shattered remains. Last winter I went to the hilltop at Alyson’s to look for Comet PanSTARRS . I found it, but my favorite image from that night was of the battered remains of the Great Oak as it appeared to beseech the universe for deliverance. Tragically the prayer was not answered and this summer the remaining branches had to be trimmed. Now only a sad pillar remains on the hillside from which the tree once commanded such a prominent viewpoint.
This magnificent tree’s fate highlights the uniqueness and fragility of ancient trees which, over the centuries, have repeatedly been exposed to potential destruction. It makes champions like Chesterfield’s Great Oak even more precious and worthy of careful preservation.
For more Photos of the great Oaks, check out my companion Album on my
Getting it Right in the Digital Camera Blog.
~ Jeffrey Newcomer