Elegy for a black oak

‘Quercus velutina’ was almost 200.

The writer's feet on the massive stump of the oak. — Photo by Matt Pelikan

We are sorry to report the passing of Quercus velutina, a.k.a. Black Oak, sometime during the winter of 2014–15 at the approximate age of 200. A lifelong resident of Oak Bluffs, Quercus never budged beyond her birthplace in what is now Everett Park. The cause of death was infestation by Bassettia ceropteroides, a gall-forming wasp in the family Cynipidae. No burial or memorial service is planned; the remains were mostly removed on Friday, June 5, in stove-length chunks.

Back in 1815, plus or minus, a particular acorn uncurled in meager clay soil in Oak Bluffs. Around this time, the oak-built frigate U.S.S. Constitution offered inspiration to oak trees everywhere by singlehandedly defeating the British sixth-rates Cyane, 34 guns, and Levant, 21 guns, the last of her victories.

From the acorn, a strand of rapidly dividing cells sought the center of the earth; another strand craved the sky, fanning out into leaves, fighting to stay a step ahead of other seedlings in her cohort. In 1850, after 35 years of growth, Quercus was merely five inches through at the base of her single trunk — a meager if densely-wooded young tree.

As Quercus struggled, human Vineyarders came and went. The first Methodist Campground Meeting convened in 1835, when she was about 20. At the time, says the historian Henry Franklin Norton, “what is now Oak Bluffs was a sheep pasture,” thigh-deep in huckleberry. But I’ll bet my arm that the site of Everett Park was wooded. Browsing or mowing does slow the growth of a tree, but black oaks respond to being cut or browsed by resprouting multiple stems. The tree rings and her massive, single trunk say Quercus grew in woodland, earlier generations stealing her light but shielding her from harm.

First the sheep industry, then the whaling industry peaked and went sour for the Vineyard’s humans. The late 19th century must have been bleak indeed here, and some periods of especially tight annual rings in Quercus suggest that drought may have added to the Island’s woes. But as the 20th century dawned, Quercus, still a slender 10-incher, began growing steadily faster. Perhaps she finally reached a height at which her topmost leaves could see the sun; or perhaps the preceding generation of oaks began to senesce, lose limbs, and die, creating openings through which light and rain could pass.

Quercus began stretching out, becoming the shader instead of the shadee. Other mature trees must have been thinned from what was now a grove on the edge of town, for Quercus had room to send out huge horizontal limbs. During the 1930s, a banner decade for her if not for humanity, her trunk diameter increased by almost six inches. As World War II raged and Quercus’s luck began to run out, she was in her pride as a fully mature tree, two feet in diameter and rising perhaps 50 feet to the sky.

Human Islanders of a certain age will associate the year 1954 with the dual hurricanes Carol and Edna, both category 3, the first a near miss, the second not a miss at all. One victim was Quercus, her growth rate abruptly halved by lost branches or root damage; the premature defoliation September hurricanes unfailingly cause may have weakened her, as well. It was not until the 1980s ended that Quercus’s wrenched limbs fully recovered.

But if you’re a tree, you learn patience. Somewhere along the line, Everett Park was cleared of all but a few huge oaks, but it made little difference to Quercus, because she already stood tall above her neighbors. Rapid growth resumed. In early spring, migrant grackles squeaked from the peak of Quercus, choosing the highest perch around. Northbound northern parula warblers, born for life amid the highest twigs, sang from Quercus every May. Reaching perhaps 80 feet in height and spreading nearly as wide, Quercus ranked among the grandest trees on the Island. Her base was four feet thick, and her girth increased by seven full inches in the first decade of this century.

Then, disaster. Around 2010, gall-forming wasps in the genus Bassettia, tiny, mysterious bane of black oaks across the Cape and Islands, began laying their eggs in Quercus’s twigs. Swellings formed, blocking the tiny tubes that carried water to the leaves and sugar back down into the tree. Growth virtually halted. In 2014, only a few tufts of green leaves appeared on Quercus; sometime during the following winter, she died. And in a single day, arborists dropped her to the ground and trucked off air, water, and sunlight trapped across two full centuries.

About 15 feet of lower trunk remain to be removed as I write this, a massive column now fallen, and the ground is still powdered with sawdust reeking of tannins. Quercus’s stump has been ground level with the soil’s surface, and what used to be her corner of Everett Park looks strangely natural already as an open area rather than part of a grove of giants. In months or maybe just weeks, there will be no sign left of Quercus’s struggles or her grandeur. But I’ve read her autobiography.