No more Massive Oak

Last week I went to Framingham State for an afternoon workshop, and the Massive Oak behind Hemenway Hall was gone, along with the Massive Oak in front of the library and all the smaller trees and undergrowth that used to fringe a plot of sunny grass students called Larned Beach. In the picture above, the blue sky on the right is where Massive Oak used to stand, as illustrated in this photo from March:

Massive Oak

Because I’d known since March that Framingham State’s Massive Oaks were going to be cut down to make way for a new building–an inexorable transition from Old to New–I had braced myself for the big empty space they’d leave behind. Still, it’s shocking that first time you see Nothing standing where there once had been Something.

Massive oak

At right is the last picture I took of Massive Oak, back in May when he was just starting to leaf. As I’d mentioned then, the wood from Massive Oak would be donated to the restoration of Mayflower II, a historically accurate, 56-year-old replica of the ship that brought the Puritans to the New World.

Today in catching up with my online reading, I saw an illustrated blog post from Plimoth Plantation showing exactly how the lumber from Massive Oak was dismantled and carted away. In the end, Massive Oak’s trunk and limbs weren’t long enough to provide planks for the ship’s hull–apparently he wasn’t that Massive–but they will be “very useful for frame stock as well as structural knees.” Happy trails (or sails) to you, Massive Oak.

Massive oak

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.

Lilacs - May 15 / Day 135

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.

Orange azaleas

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.

White azaleas

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.

Lilac buds

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?

Dogwood blossoms and brick wall - May 6 / Day 126

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.

Dandelions and oak tree - April 30 / Day 120

Today was my last day teaching spring semester classes at Framingham State: on Saturday morning, my students will submit their final essay portfolios online, then on Monday and Tuesday mornings, I’ll proctor their final exams before spending the rest of the week grading, grading, grading. Through long experience, I’ve learned that semesters move forward as inexorably as seasons: in some ways, it feels like the end of the semester has been a long time coming, and in other ways, it feels like the end of the semester has come (again) before I’m really ready for it.

Oak leaves outside my office

The last week of classes is always a bittersweet time. On the one hand, I’m always tired and eager for the (brief) respite that comes at the end of the semester; on the other hand, I’m always mindful of how much grading stands between the last week of the semester and Done.

When I taught at Keene State, the last week of the semester was typically when I’d find myself looking out my classroom windows at Old Silver, the sprawling silver maple I’d nicknamed the Failure Tree before he collapsed with an earth-shaking thud three years ago.

Pink dogwood flowers

Old Silver had a lot of help in his final years from the Keene State College grounds crew, who tethered his trunks together with wire cables, and I always took quiet encouragement looking out the window at him during the final weeks of the semester, when I was daunted by my paper-piles and unsure whether my students had really “gotten” anything I’d tried to teach them.

Old Silver stood alongside me for most of my teaching career at Keene State, but he never really listened to any of my lectures, preferring to figure out his own approach to “tree-ness.” Sometimes the most lasting lessons happen despite everything a teacher does—or fails to do—in the classroom, and the last week of the semester is when I find myself quietly hoping that my students got something useful out of my class, if only by osmosis.

Massive oak

I haven’t (yet) found an acceptable equivalent to Old Silver at Framingham State: I’m still getting to know the trees there. The closest candidates are the two massively sprawling oak trees on Larned Beach, the grassy patch of real estate between Hemenway Hall and Whittemore Library. Both of these oaks are estimated to be a couple hundred years old: one is hale and hearty, the other is dying after being struck by lightning, and both are slated to be felled later this month to allow room for new construction.

If you’ve been alive and paying attention long enough, one of the lessons you eventually learn (if only by osmosis) is that even the oldest and sturdiest trees eventually fail and fall. Some, like Old Silver, choose their own time, defying gravity with a little help from attentive groundskeepers. Others, like Framingham State’s two massive oaks, have their times chosen for them, progress moving inexorably whether you’re ready for it or not.

Two giants - May 2 / Day 122

Whittemore Library oak tree

I haven’t known the massive oak tree that stands near the library at Framingham State University long enough to give it a name, as I did with “Old Silver,” the multi-trunked silver maple that used to stand on the corner of Fisk Quad at Keene State. But the first time I visited Framingham State, I stopped in my tracks when I saw the massive oak that stands on the grassy slope between May Hall and Whittemore Library: such a large, sprawling, and admirably craggy fellow!

Behind May Hall

Because Massive Oak’s branches sprawl so wide, it’s difficult to fit him into a single photographic frame, so before this past Thursday I had only two pictures of him, both taken this past November, when a friend and I held an informal writing retreat on campus. When we arrived at Framingham State on that November day, my writing partner remarked how pretty the campus was, and since we were walking past Massive Oak at the time, I assumed she was commenting on how wonderful it is to teach on a campus with large, mature trees on it: craggy characters who refuse to be contained in a single photographic frame, deciding instead to spread into every inch of available space.

Because Massive Oak is both large and sprawling, taking up a large area of prime campus real estate, my heart sank on Thursday morning when I saw his huge trunk circled with pink utility tape. By Thursday afternoon, others had noticed the tape and drew the natural conclusion: Massive Oak is marked for removal.

I appreciate this tree

On Friday–the Ides of March–an email confirmed our worst suspicions: trees wrapped in pink tape will be removed, trees wrapped in orange tape will be spared, and trees wrapped in both pink and orange tape will be transplanted, all to make way for a new Science Building that is planned for the site.

Tree appreciator

As much as my inner-Edward Abbey immediately considered an act of eco-terrorist sabotage–how simple it would be, I thought, to switch pink tape with orange, or to yarn bomb the whole damn tree–I’m old enough to know better. Massive Oak is too large and gangling a fellow to coexist with a sprawling new science building: new buildings prefer small, easily-contained trees, not a craggy behemoth whose roots and memory both reach deep.

Marked for removal

Tree-removal is scheduled to begin soon after graduation in May, which means I and other tree-appreciators have the rest of the semester to take pictures, rest in the shade, and otherwise enjoy Massive Oak while he’s with us. We’re all destined to die eventually, and a terminal diagnosis–death with a date–reminds us to appreciate time with trees we might otherwise walk right past.