BRANCHES of KNOWLEDGE

When a big tree falls, the university loses a living connection to history

By RANDALL HOLCOMBE

The tree known as No. 36, a massive southern red oak with a trunk more than 50 inches in diameter, bit the dust in June, knocked down by the powerful gusts of a severe thunderstorm. Wind was the final straw triggering the demise of the giant that stood just off Joyner Drive on WCU’s “old campus,” but after a mountain of branches and leaves were cleared, the shattered trunk revealed a rotten core, indicating that the tree’s downfall also came from within. “I hated to lose that one, but I was glad it fell without causing any damage,” said David Hatton, an arborist and member of the grounds crew in WCU’s Department of Facilities Management.

A survey conducted a few years ago by a private landscape architectural firm listed all the trees that dominate the environment of WCU’s old campus – the area on the hill above Central Drive, extending from Breese Gymnasium to the chancellor’s residence. A number was assigned to each tree with its scientific name and common name, diameter of the trunk measured four feet above the ground, ratings of health and overall value, and maintenance notes. In addition to listing No. 36 as a “heritage tree” because of what it had witnessed, from a historical perspective, the survey revealed that the oak was one of the four biggest trees on the old campus. It was matched or exceeded in size only by another 50-inch southern red oak heritage tree that is still standing and growing nearby on the opposite side of Joyner Drive, and two 60-inch hardwoods that survive and have presumably added a few inches to their waistlines since the survey. One, a white oak, fills up the yard in front of the Alumni House on Central Drive and is referred to in the survey as “outstanding, massive,” and a nearby silver maple is listed as a “massive specimen.”

The ages of all the big trees on the old campus are a mystery, even though the age-old tradition of ring-counting actually works, said Roger Turk, grounds superintendent for facilities management. Hatton refrains from drilling into the trees for core samples to count the rings because that can damage the tree, and in the case of the big oak that fell in June, the rotted inside didn’t allow for ring-counting. Turk said it is safe to assume that many of the biggest specimens on the old campus were good-sized trees in the late 1800s, when WCU was a fledgling institution that consisted of just two small structures, and university pioneers such as Robert Lee Madison walked beneath their branches.

Although there are a few other big and old trees scattered around university property, a majority of WCU’s prized trees are located on the old campus, and even though those aren’t growing in a wild setting, they can be considered old growth, Hatton said. In addition to the four giant hardwoods, the survey listed about 140 other trees, ranging from oaks and maples to pines and hemlocks, that measured between 30 and 50 inches in diameter at the time of the inventory.

June thunderstorms brought down several other big trees on the old campus, including a 30-inch scarlet oak that fell near Madison Hall and a white pine that crushed a brick structure on Central Drive that housed the University Club, and other trees were damaged. Those events were just a reminder that, as is the nature of living things, all the big trees on the old campus eventually will perish, taken down by a combination of disease and/or the elements, or they will have to be removed because of the danger they pose to people, Turk said.

The past decade, which has included prolonged periods of severe drought, was hard on the trees on the old campus, especially the oaks, which have a relatively shallow root system, he said. As a result, the rate at which the old trees are being lost is increasing in momentum, with more going down in storms and showing signs of disease. “It’s a natural cycle, and the campus landscape is constantly evolving. The old trees are being lost and the young ones in the newly developed areas of campus will grow and mature,” Turk said.

Some measures are being taken to prolong the lives of the trees, including fertilization and removal of dead limbs. Hatton, an arborist certified by the International Society of Arborculture, does that work, using his skills as a former rock climber to scoot up the trees with just a rope – without the use of spikes on his shoes, which can damage a tree. More could be done to extend the lives of the trees, but resources are limited, Turk said.

In the meantime, the old ones that survive will continue to brood over the historic structures and brick walkways of the old campus, creating the atmosphere of quiet contemplation that distinguishes the area. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of people in the WCU community never visit the old campus,” Turk said. “They are depriving themselves of the beauty in that area and missing an opportunity to feel a connection with university history.”