The Star Quality of an Old Tree

Field Notices

Luther College Chips
May 1, 2008

How long can a dead or dying tree prove valuable? In the case of Sherwood Forest: hundreds of years. That’s a thought I keep in mind as I watch the cottonwood outside Main enter into its maturity.

Landscape architect Jens Jensen had that cottonwood planted as a sentinel tree when he re-landscaped the Luther campus in honor of the school’s 50th anniversary in 1911.

Jensen sought to give the campus, in miniature, its own rendition of the mosaic of prairies, oak openings and woodlands that had been native to this area before the arrival of Europeans. Jensen associated solitary cottonwoods with the open bottomlands he observed here and places west, and so he had one planted on Luther’s most prominent spot.

The immense cottonwood east of Main is therefore about 100 years old. While cottonwoods can live to twice that age, their soft wood is susceptible to storm damage and, once exposed, decay. The scars on Main’s sentinel tree testify to that.

The tree is a male and doesn’t produce seeds. Perry Halse, Luther’s resident green thumb, has been up in a lift basket to take cuttings from the upper branches of the cottonwood in hopes of rooting out a tree that can one day be planted to replace the old one. So far none of the cuttings have taken hold.

At 22 and one-half feet in circumference, Luther’s cottonwood has the biggest trunk on campus: a tree almost too big to hug. Its shade makes the best outdoor classroom for religion, philosophy and English classes seeking fresh air on hot, sunny days. Beneath those massive boughs the seeds of both ancient philosophy and postmodern theory have been planted. And for couples pretending to study as they lean against that trunk, young love has taken root for several generations.

Sherwood Forest has a signature tree as well. Not far from Edwinstowe, the village where Robin Hood was said to have married Maid Marian, stands a tree reputed to have offered a hiding place to Robin as he evaded the evil minions of King John.

Robin Hood probably never lived, and 800 years ago, when John ruled England, the tree was probably too young to offer a man-sized hollow space. Still, the legend of Robin’s hiding there attests to how long England’s most famous tree, called the Major Oak, has been hollow.

When Major Hayman Rooke published an account of the oak in 1790, the tree’s hollow had long been used by gents of the local blood sports as a pen for fighting cocks. The trunk Rooke measured was just shy of its current 34-foot girth. “Depredations,” Rooke said, had been “made by time on its venerable trunk.” The hollow was so large, he wrote, that “with the assistance of the axe, [it] might be made wide enough to admit a carriage through.”

In other words, for as long as the United States has been a country, the Major Oak has been one very big hollow tree. So too, many of its carefully preserved fellow oaks, today tended as a national treasure by a team of foresters, have been dead for as long as anyone can remember.

Over half a million tourists come every year to walk in that forest of half-dead trees. The main tree they come to see is propped with enough wooden uprights and secured with enough metal cord to look like an accident victim negotiating life with a walking frame. Foresters began bracing the tree in 1908, just a few years before Luther planted its cottonwood.

I’ve made a number of trips to the Major Oak. There is a strange power in seeing such majesty persevering in spite of such strain.

The East Midlands Conservancy Forestry Commission that oversees Sherwood Forest recognizes the last third of a healthy tree’s life is spent in decline and that ancient snags (dead trees) are necessary habitat for fungus, lichens, insects, birds and small mammals that round out a healthy forest ecosystem. The Major Oak started its 300-plus years of decline while America was still a colony. It will continue to be a source of new life for what could be several hundred more years.

Recognizing that, the EMCFC is in no hurry to remove dead trees. Instead they are planting a quarter million new ones to help grow a Major Oak for 3008.

I hope that Luther, too, will go ahead and plant a new cottonwood but not be in a hurry to cut the old one down. That massive tree may not be hollow enough to hide a legendary figure for another 50 years. In the meantime, it is a lesson as tall as the tower of Main, that beauty can come from something craggy and weathered putting out new life in absolutely perfect keeping with the spring.