When I first came to our hilltop 30 years ago, I was overwhelmed by the majesty of the five giant oak trees surrounding the house. The tallest, a willow oak, stands nearly 120 feet high, its crown visible from miles away. A tape pulled around its base measures a 16-inch circumference, giving a diameter at breast height (DBH) of just over five feet. The others are close behind.
Over the years foresters and arborists have estimated the stately grove to be around 200 years old, sprung from acorns at the end of the 18th or beginning of the 19th century. My personal theory is that they were about 50 years of age when cotton planter James Phinney decided they provided the perfect setting to build his, now our, raised cottage in 1856.
By the time I arrived, the trees were in serious need of attention — many top branches were dying and huge knots showed evidence of lost lower limbs. Local rumor suggested that renters had sawn them off for firewood. Finding knowledgeable people to evaluate and provide care for those trees became my first priority — beginning the restoration of the house could wait. I was happy to cook on a two-burner hot plate and use a dorm-room sized refrigerator as long as the trees’ needs were met.
Soon a reputable company arrived with tanks filled with liquid food and sky lifts to reach dead wood. During the ensuing years of drought, many truckloads of hardwood mulch were spread beneath those towering canopies. When thunderstorms brought rain I prayed the trees would be protected from lightning. You do what you can do.
Two weeks ago I awoke to a sickening sight — nearly half of the huge white oak that stands near the kitchen had fallen. Although greatly saddened, I was not surprised, as we knew that the mighty trunk had divided untold decades ago into sister trunks, one extending at a precarious 90 degree angle. I understood that the weakened point where they parted provided an opportunity for decay which would eventually combine with weight and gravity to cause this crash to earth. Yet the reality was almost surreal. I remember numbly surveying the mountain of limbs and leaves hoping no bird nests had been harmed.
The wide crotch where the two trunks joined was for several years home to a family of barred owls whose nightly food delivery by the parents and later flight training of the fledglings was observed with fascination. After a snake event prompted the owls’ departure I fantasized about building a tree house where they had nested. Now it is too late.
Half of the tree has been lost. The view outside the kitchen window has changed drastically, the morning sun streams in with unaccustomed brightness. Still, we refuse to let go of what remains. We are not yet willing to say a final goodbye to this beloved old friend. Next week our arborist will return to minister to the gaping wound and brace a heavy lower limb. Once more, we’ll do what we can.
— Joanna Angle is a 30-year resident of Chester County and a Master Tree Farmer. She has previously directed the Olde English District Tourism Commission, produced and hosted “Palmetto Places” for SCETV and helped establish the Chester campus of York Technical College.