Old Town Laurel's oldest resident, one who stood silent witness to the birth of our country, the creation of our town and the growth of the modern world, has died. On Nov. 18, the 250-year-old champion willow oak, located at Park Place on Talbott Avenue between Seventh and Eighth streets, succumbed to the rigors of that long life and the stresses of the 21st century, and fell to the saw.
Once, it was just one of many large trees that made up the oak grove that dominated that section of Laurel, and from which the city's historically black neighborhood, the Grove, took its name. In the early-to-mid 20th century, before the integration of professional baseball, the Laurel Stars played ball in an African-American baseball league whose games were played near that oak grove. The big willow oak undoubtedly provided welcome shade to spectators and ballplayers alike.
But with time and development, the large grove of trees was whittled down to the small patch of woods that existed between Seventh and Eighth streets until 2004. Those woods were the old willow oak's only buffer against a rapidly changing world.
For most of my years in Laurel, going back to the 1960s, I never saw the tree. Even when I passed those woods every morning that I walked with my son to Laurel Elementary School, I didn't know it was there. Except for its crown, which was only visible from a distance, the big tree was hidden from view by the protective forest surrounding it; unless you ventured into those woods or flew over them, you wouldn't know the tree existed.
So when the old tree was revealed during early construction of the Park Place complex, and its age and "champion specimen" status became known, I was an instant fan. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of this newfound, living piece of history, right around the corner. I took a measure of pride in the fact that the city and the developer committed to preserving this "new" neighbor of mine. I took a photograph of the tree and added an approximate time line in an attempt to convey a sense of the historical sweep of that tree's life. And I was fortunate to have a camera with me the winter evening in 2007 when I drove by and it was silhouetted by a beautiful sunset —just one of the more than 90 thousand suns that rose and set on this ancient sentinel of Old Town.
The majestic tree, once misidentified as a swamp white oak, stood more than 100 feet tall. In its leafy prime, its canopy had a spread almost equal to its height, and its trunk was six feet across where it reached into the earth.
On the day it fell, by the time I happened upon it, only the bottom part of the tree still stood. I stopped to take some photos and, I guess, to also say goodbye. The four-man crew of owner/foreman Bobby Carter Jr., Eric Shaw, Javier Reyes and Samuel Garcia were at work feeding all the smaller branches into the chipper. I spoke briefly with Carter, who has been in the tree business for 35 years, about the dangers of tree work and how sensitive these seemingly indestructible giants can be to their surroundings. And from him I learned that it was a willow oak, not a white oak.
Developer Michael Collins had the best intentions and worked with the city to protect the tree during construction of Park Place. And a few years later, when the old tree began to show signs of stress, additional measures were taken to save it. It was a noble effort and collaboration between Collins and our city, which has been a designated "Tree City" since 1993, when the willow oak's champion status was first recognized. But with such significant changes to its immediate environment, particularly to the ground above its widespread root system, and with the relocation of the nearby 7-Eleven imminent, it was only a matter of time.
Survivors include countless progeny growing who-knows-where, aided by the variety of wildlife who were nourished by the tree's abundant bounty of acorns as they participated in its propagation.
A memorial plaque is planned for the spot where the tree stood for so long. As a way to acknowledge the inherent risks of even well-intended development efforts, I'd like to propose that the plaque include this inscription, a clumsy paraphrase from Joyce Kilmer's beautiful poem: "I think that I shall never see, a convenience store lovely as this tree."
Michael McLaughlin is a former Laurel Leader columnistCopyright © 2015, CT Now