In the Bickelhaupt Arboretum’s “Nature of Trees Display” there is a cross section of a 108-year-old oak tree which was struck by lightning and needed to be cut down in 1998.
This tree and others like it should be acknowledged and respected for living over a century. The tree’s memory will live on for decades because Bill Rathje, a former volunteer at the arboretum, suggested a slice of the trunk be preserved. It is a teaching tool to show visitors and students who come to the arboretum that each ring represents a year, so it is a calendar of the tree’s life.
It is also a personal journal telling the reader of drought years and years with large amounts of moisture. Some rings show stress in the form of insect, disease or fire damage. As part of the display, Bill counted the rings. Then he noted events in history pointing to the ring or age of the tree when history was being made. If this tree could talk, it would tell you it sprouted from a small acorn in 1889. When it was a mere one year seedling in 1890, steam engines started replacing horses on the farm.
It continued to grow and when it was 8 years old, the Clinton County Courthouse was completed. Back then the tree grew in a wooded area on the outskirts of the growing town of Clinton. Later the surrounding trees would be cleared for pasture leaving the straightest and strongest oaks for shade for the livestock.
Fast forwarding through time when the tree was 32 years old in 1921, the Lincoln highway was paved through Clinton and in 1928 the Iten Christmas display was lit. If this tree could tell you stories of Clinton, it would reminisce in 1944 the Schick Hospital was full of patients from the war and that in 1946, Clinton Community College was established. When the tree turned 81 in 1970, Frances and Robert Bickelhaupt founded the arboretum. The established trees on the property were designated Founder Trees and were celebrated species on the newly formed arboretum. When the tree turned a century old in 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down.
There were other oaks on what is now the Bickelhaupt Arboretum. In 1996, another Bur Oak was damaged by a severe wind storm. When it was cut down, the tree had 172 growth rings making it 172 years old.
Today if you want to know the age of a tree, you can guess or you can have a professional arborist do a small boring into the trunk so the rings can be counted without cutting down the tree. Fast growing trees have wider rings like a silver maple or willow; slower growing trees like oak and gingko have smaller rings generally indicating a stronger wood. On conifers, like pine trees, each layer of branches represents a year, so by counting the layers you have the age of the tree.
Unless a one or two century old tree is declining, damage by weather or disease, how can we justify cutting it down? How can you justify destroying an old living tree that for centuries has cleaned the air by using CO2 and producing tons of oxygen; a tree that has slowed erosion, cooled the soil and surrounding area and been home to numerous wildlife. Sure we can plant a new tree, and we need to plant trees all the time, but we can’t plant a hundred-plus years of history.
Margo Hansen is the Director of Programs at Clinton Community College’s Bickelhaupt Arboretum.