Trees provide a sense of time and place

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Tree Talk, Joanna Angle

My sister recently sent me interesting newspaper articles about old trees on two Virginia college campuses. In both cases the trees were in rapidly declining health and deemed safety hazards. There were emotional outpourings of sadness by students, alumni and townspeople as each was scheduled for removal. But then, something wonderful happened.
At Virginia Tech an ancient sycamore had stood prominently on Henderson Lawn, the southern entrance to campus, since before the university was established in 1872.
However, root damage from underground utility installation in the 1980s, caused a fungal disease and advanced age had resulted in a dangerously weakened condition.
In the summer of 2010, as time drew near for the tree to be taken down, the entire Blacksburg community seemed to be in mourning.
Because of its location beside College Avenue, the official boundary between “town and gown,” it had become a local icon, beloved by generations of residents, alumni and faculty. In the Virginia Tech tradition of each class designing its own ring, the Class of 2011 was moved to feature an aerial view of College Avenue, including the historic sycamore.
Yet, thanks to forestry professors John Seiler and Eric Wiseman, the sycamore tree has been reborn through a DNA-identical clone.
Last month Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger and Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam presided over an Earth Day celebration near where the original tree had stood.
The 10-foot sycamore they unveiled had been rooted from a cutting taken from the dying “mother” tree just before it was removed.
Miraculously, this baby tree was one of only two of the 300 cuttings taken to survive.
Less than 40 miles away, Roanoke College held a ceremony to say goodbye to the Bittle Tree, a massive tulip poplar described by a faculty member as “our steadfast sentinel.” It was planted about 1855 by founding president the Rev. David Bittle, who brought the donated tree to the campus’ front quadrangle in a horse-drawn wagon.
Although it had survived numerous lightning strikes, it had become too unstable to continue being the site for graduations and other gatherings.
During his farewell remarks college president Mike Maxey commented, “The Bittle Tree has recorded in those rings our history and life together.” It was noted that the tree had “in its time seen visitors from Buffalo Bill Cody and George Washington Carver to Kanye West.”
Happily, environmental sciences professor Jon Cawley had the foresight to recruit students to help extend the tree’s legacy by gathering 350 seeds, 15 of which germinated.
Three of those seedlings have been planted near the mother tree’s location and President Maxey personally performs watering duty during hot weather.
Professor Cawley emphasized that planting the Baby Bittles was more than a symbolic gesture, saying, “This is actually saying we’re going to be here another 200 years.”
Trees do give us a sense of time, both past and future.
And as President Stegar said in Blacksburg, “Trees help give us a sense of place.”

Joanna Angle is a Master Tree Farmer and 2012 South Carolina Tree Farmer of the Year. Her Cedarleaf Farm in Chester County is a Certified Stewardship Forest and part of the American Tree Farm System.