Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 24

June 13-19, 2002

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Farewell, Wye Oak
After 460 Years, Maryland’s State Tree Is No More

Under the spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882

Under the spreading Wye Oak, not just the smithy but everyone stood, picnicked, looked up in awe, appreciation and pride, snapped photos, took a leaf to be pressed in a book or maybe slipped an acorn in a pocket in hopes they, too, would have a magnificent white oak back home one day.

Okay, I admit that not everyone stood under the glorious Wye Oak over at Wye Mills on the mid Eastern Shore — though an observer would have thought so by the reaction of the citizenry the past week.

Men, women and children came by the thousands to pay their respects after the biggest and oldest white oak in North America was toppled last Thursday evening by violent winds.

Some mourners cried openly as workmen of the Department of Natural Resources plied chain saws and other equipment to salvage what they could: wood, buds or anything else of the mighty oak so dear to the hearts of not just Marylanders.

Long Witness
Some were married under her spreading boughs, and others popped the question beneath her. Many an old-timer could recall picnicking as a child under her shade, while still others had just come to gawk as they drove past. All who had seen her standing never forgot her enormous proportions: a pretty much worn-out trunk rotted inside yet still with a girth of 32 feet.

’Tis said four men could play cards around a table within her trunk, that’s how round she was. Cables secured her limbs and infrastructure, she was well trussed, yet she was still alive, respected and loved, all 100 feet or more of her as she still reached for the sky. Those who saw her standing will remember her that way, an oak with the indomitable spirit of this great hardwood species.

She had seen much in her time, about 167,900 days if her estimated age of 460 is accurate. Presumably. There was no way to count her rings, for her innards were rotted out. But we’ll give the Grand Old Dame of Forestry the benefit of the doubt.

She was once in a chicken yard. Long before that Indians probably cooled off in her shade. Decades ago an arrowhead was found at her base by a worker, and there is speculation she was along a busy Native American footpath before the White Man came. In more than four and a half centuries, she has witnessed much.

Our Sprout
I visited her many times, often with wife Lois and the kids. Burtons love trees, and oaks — along with hickories — are our favorites. We knew technically it was against the rules (one is not allowed to scavenge in state parks, and Wye Oak Park is the state’s smallest), but when we visited in the fall we would scrounge a few acorns she dropped in hopes one might sprout new life up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County.

Despite my efforts, none ever did. Some acorns I set in soft soil as soon as I returned home; others I stored in a cool, dark niche in the cellar until spring. But never was there a sign of life from my seeds of the great Wye Oak.

But the Burton homestead is not without progeny of the Wye Oak. Standing straight and reaching toward the heavens on the east side of the house stands a white oak in robust health, and the birdhouse affixed to her mainstem about 12 feet from the ground is the home of a pair of song sparrows.

Thirty years ago, she came from the old and now abandoned Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest and Parks Nursery off Dorsey Road where the department, among other projects, was turning out seedlings from the Wye Oak. My seedling was a puny thing of less than a foot in height when I planted her next to the road. But with watering and a little fertilizer she took hold nicely.

Today, she stands at better than 45 feet, and her girth at the base is 44 inches. The same storm that claimed her mother took a few smaller branches, and a bigger one was damaged a year ago when another tree fell close by. Otherwise, she’s in excellent shape.

But she had one close call two years ago. Lightning claimed a taller tulip poplar less than 40 feet from her, but the poplar still stands on the slope that drops down to Stoney Creek. Under normal circumstances it should be cut down, but the root base helps hold together the underfooting of the slope — and it still has enough life that permits would be needed for removal.

I didn’t make it to Wye Mills to witness the removal of the Wye Oak. I couldn’t spare the time seeing the deadline was fast approaching for a hunting annual I edit. But I did spend some time with my oak, and I drove a few more fertilizer spikes at her drip line. She means more to me now.

Among those who did make the trip to Wye Mills was Chuck Fox, secretary of DNR, which has the job of determining what to with the remains of the state tree. As much as possible is being preserved, he told me, and now heavy equipment has carted the trunk and limbs to a warehouse on Kent Island.

Of course, priority goes to the genetic materials. It’s a bit early in the year for buds, but some have been salvaged from the crown. They will be used in an effort to create clones under a relatively new process known as adhesion, according to Stark McLaughlin, the Natural Resources forester who looked after the great tree for nearly 30 years.

Earlier this year, two successful cloned samples were planted on the grounds of George Washington’s Mount Vernon as part of a reforestation project underway there, said Stark. Technology, he added, can do much with buds and grafting — and every effort is being made to ensure there will be many more Wye Oak juniors on this earth.

Over the years, many thousands of seedlings have been planted across the state and elsewhere, but can there be enough Wye Oaks? More will come, and now there’s the job of figuring out how to equitably distribute seedlings and other memorabilia among Marylanders, all of whom owned this tree.

And what to do with the wood? In 1953, when a large branch broke off, gavels were made for judges. Several years later, a broken branch was said to be used for a desk for then-Gov. Millard Tawes. Carvers swamped DNR with requests.

Plaques could be made from the fine hardwood, planks for boats and memorials, for who would not want a memento from the great oak? Some who came to see her after she was felled already have their souvenirs.

Secretary Fox was moved by the outpouring of mourners, and he eased the rules enough to allow some who came paying their respects to take a leaf, a twig or a splinter. “How could we say no, these people came from everywhere? The tree belongs to them,” he said.

After checking out the early stage of salvage at Wye Mills, one of the first things the current secretary did was phone former secretary Torrey Brown to pass on the sad news. “I had to admit it happened on my watch,” Fox said.

But the venerable Wye Oak was old, big and frail, and the wind was strong. All things pass, and now a 102-foot white oak in Harford County is the largest in the state. Oaks in Easton and Dunkirk are runners-up.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly