There’s really nothing rushed in the life of a white oak tree. In her book Seeing Trees, Nancy Ross Hugo noted that they spend 200 years growing, 200 years living and 200 years dying. Sadly, the beloved white oak that’s graced the grounds of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood for centuries is in the final phase of its long life, and the community is responding with heartfelt gratitude as well as sadness.
Although no one really knows its age, some stories establish the tree as 400 years old, which means it was a large tree even when construction of the church began in 1850. Long-time caretaker Michael Abbott, a master arborist working for Bartlett Tree Experts, said its age can be at least partly verified once the tree is cut down, by counting the rings in the lower trunk.
Abbott, who has been caring for the tree throughout almost his whole career, said the tree’s location near plentiful water and the lack of competition for light from other trees in a canopy allowed it to channel a lot of growth into its enormous spreading branches. The Emmanuel oak is actually thicker than it is tall, with limbs spreading widely over the front lawn. One of the largest (60 feet long) has been low enough for centuries for children to reach and climb. The trunk itself is more than six feet in diameter, Abbott said. “This doesn’t happen when a tree grows in a forest.”
Despite its advantages, some years may have been a little rougher than others. For a while, a buffalo and Indian trail ran over its roots, but that traffic was sporadic. Since the coming of the automobile and the Episcopalians, but long before the fairly recent paved parking lot, folklore says that one Emmanuel rector put up a sign, “Thou shalt not park here,” which saved the earth around the oak from becoming too compacted.
Everything possible has been done to save the tree, but nature and time made its death and removal inevitable. Knowing its future was uncertain, a group of tree lovers from Charlottesville gathered there last year for their annual picnic to enjoy the tree while it still survived, but they observed sadly that half the tree was already completely dead.
Long-time church-goer Mary Buford Hitz recalled how, as a child, the tree gave her a sense of freedom, because it marked the end of her journey from Richmond to the countryside, a trip she made often. When she became a permanent resident, she was awed by its spectacular beauty. “To me, it was always the outstanding feature of the local landscape,” she said.
Emmanuel’s rector, Rev. J.T. Thomas, said he saw the tree as both a gateway to the church and a symbol of Emmanuel. When he came to Greenwood to be interviewed by the search committee, he had already learned a few things about the ancient oak. He also observed the large number of other impressive white oaks back from the road, and the walking trail.
To him, it was obvious that his potential congregation valued what nature had provided. “I felt the same way about the built environment,” he said, noting that the newest structure at Emmanuel dates to 1905. “These things don’t stay with us by accident.” He said he’s always known that what communities choose to preserve says a lot about them: “I began to think that these might be my people.” Later, he found the tree to be a constant figure in the vestry minutes and also in the budget for the last 30 years, as Emmanuel leadership deliberated on the best way to protect it.
As someone who’s always loved the outdoors, Thomas said he was comfortable when the pandemic caused Emmanuel’s Easter service to move outside. To him, watching the children run around and play under the tree made the solemn celebration more meaningful. “We’ll be outside again this Easter, weather permitting,” he said.
Thomas sees all kinds of ancient themes in the demise of the great oak, and touched on them in a February sermon. “…even massive, thriving trees are not eternal, at least in the form we call tree,” he told congregation members, reminding them that the tree had already provided seeds for countless other oaks, created a rich soil for abundant life, and provided food for generations of birds, bears, deer and, ultimately, for people.
There’s much about the tree that corresponds with the Lenten liturgy. “In time, it will take on new forms of matter and energy, no longer what it once was, but part of what is and is to be,” Thomas continued.
As though to further emphasize the transformation and meaning of the tree even as it spends its last days in its present form, the congregation let some of the branches from the tree’s last trimming remain on the ground, and people in the community have asked permission take little bits and pieces from the downed branches to carve, sculpt and fashion into mementos of its long and graceful life.
They’re trying to figure out what to do with the truly massive amount of wood on a larger scale, Thomas said, noting that the wood will need to weather for quite some time before it can serve as a reliable building material. He likes the idea of fashioning simple wooden benches for people to rest and enjoy the landscape, and there are lots of other good ideas, too.
Thomas has heard many opinions about the tree, not only from his parish, but from the wider community. He welcomes all of them. “We’re just stewards of the trees, not its owners,” he said. In voicemails, people have scolded him for “letting the tree die,” as well as criticizing the church for delaying in taking it down.
Arborist Michael Abbott said the decline of the majestic tree has many causes. “Mostly old age, but oaks all along the east coast are suffering. We’ve lost a lot of them.” He also cites more recent weather extremes as contributing to the loss of many large oaks.
The final removal of the oak will be no easy matter, Abbott said. “Because you rarely see a tree this size, there really aren’t suitable tools.” Even using the largest saw blade, it will take nearly an hour to make one cut to the trunk, and the saw will require repeated sharpening. Emmanuel expects the removal to happen sometime in March.
“There’s really no liturgy for a funeral for a tree,” Thomas said, “but we’d like to allow everyone in the community to pay their respects.” Emmanuel has scheduled a short observance around the tree after the 10 a.m. service March 13. All are welcome.