Yesterday I got an email from Framingham State saying that the wood from Massive Oak, one of the trees that’s going to be cut down to make way for the new science center on campus, will be donated to Plimoth Plantation, where it will be used for the renovation of Mayflower II, a historically accurate replica of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America. The project requires a very particular kind of wood, and it’s exactly the kind of wood that comes from an enormous, centuries-old white oak tree.
White oak wood, I read, is perfect for shipbuilding because its cellular structure is particularly dense, making it both waterproof and resistant to rot. I knew that in colonial times, tall white pines were reserved for the crown, as they were prized for ships’ masts, but I didn’t know that white oaks were similarly sought after by shipbuilders. (Apparently the USS Constitution—aka Old Ironsides—is built from white oak, and a special grove of oak trees is cultivated for its maintenance.) I don’t think Massive Oak is tall or straight enough for a ship mast: his impressive volume comes from his sprawling circumference more than his towering height. But apparently the renovation of an old, historically significant ship demands large, specifically shaped pieces of white oak, not just any two-by-fours you could find at Home Depot. This means that Massive Oak will be re-purposed, not simply destroyed, his long history as a shade-giver and quiet guardian transformed into something completely different.
The news that Massive Oak will be reborn as a ship reminded me of one of my favorite children’s storybooks, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. The story describes a little boy who has a lifelong friendship with a tree. When the boy is young, he is content to climb the tree, rest in her shade, and eat her apples; as he grows older, however, the boy’s loyalties are divided. In one scene, the boy lounges beneath the tree with a girl, their initials carved into the tree’s trunk; in another scene, the boy sells the tree’s fruit for cash. When the grown man wants to build a house, the tree offers her branches, and when he later wants to build a boat, the tree offers her trunk. In the book’s final scene, the boy has become a tired old man, and all he wants is a place to sit, and the tree offers her stump. “And the tree was happy,” the story concludes with heartrending understatement. It’s not clear whether the boy-turned-man fully understands how thoroughly the giving tree has sacrificed herself to meet his ever-evolving demands; we simply know that the tree gives until she has nothing left.
I don’t know if Massive Oak is happy to help renovate a ship: I don’t know if Massive Oak has any say in the matter. In The Maine Woods, Henry David Thoreau speculated on the highest use of pine trees, and he concluded that “A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man.” Both pines and oaks, Thoreau suggested, achieve their highest worth when allowed to flourish in their natural entirety, not when they are chopped down and divvied into commodities. Thoreau in particular lamented the harvesting of pine trees to make matchsticks: “Think how stood the white-pine tree on the shore of Chesuncook,” he wrote, “its branches soughing with the four winds, and every individual needle trembling in the sunlight,—think how it stands with it now,—sold, perchance, to the New England Friction-Match Company!” Turning a towering pine tree into match sticks, Thoreau suggests, is a perversion of a tree’s true nature.
But Thoreau’s own family manufactured pencils, which are made from wood, and Thoreau himself worked as a surveyor, a job that required him to measure and calculate how many cords of wood a given lot could yield. Thoreau knew (even if he was hesitant to admit) that even our most frugal economies involve the transformation and even destruction of life. Whether or not Massive Oak’s bones are transformed into a ship, he’s destined to be chopped down; if a tree falls on a campus with no one to make use of his trunk, will that felling make any less of a sound?
I’m planning to be on campus this weekend, and I’m bracing myself for what I might see there. Now that commencement is over, construction of that new science center is slated to begin, and Massive Oak needs to be dismantled before the project moves forward. I don’t know whether Massive Oak will have been felled, dismantled, or completely removed by the time I visit the spot where he used to stand, but I know that spot will never be exactly the same. Despite all our attempts to restore and renovate our histories, the past is a ship that has already sailed on.