Honoring Over 200 Years of Shade and Comfort
By t love smith, Ad Manager
On Friday, September 23rd, students, staff and faculty all received sad news in our inboxes about the damage done by Tropical Storm Lee on USM’s Portland campus. Many hearts sank with the announcement that our beloved beech tree, also referred to as the “halloween tree” or the “elephant tree” by students, needed to be fallen immediately after a limb blew off and slammed into the side of its trunk. Our dear beech, which has provided generations of shade, grounding, and peace of mind for a quarter century of first farmers, then USM students, quickly became a serious safety concern. The author of this heartfelt email, Aaron Witham, Director of Sustainability, also known as the “campus treehugger” and “protector of the trees,” said he received 150 email responses from folx who shared stories about the tree and how much it meant to them.
University of Southern Maine Historian, Dr. Libby Bishcoff estimates the tree was planted in approximately 1804 making the tree around 219 years old. She believes that “gentleman farmer,” James Deering, the man Deering Oaks Park was named after, was the one to plant this tree because he was known to be a passionate dendrophile and would have been the one to own the land at the time. “From a dendrology perspective, that (age) makes sense based on what I see when I look at the tree rings,” said Witham. This tree and a couple more like it on campus are non-native, European beech trees, also called copper beeches. Native trees have an ecological significance and crucial place within the local ecosystem. The copper beech functions similarly to the native version and is also resistant to the beech disease currently devastating the American beech population. This is why these trees are able to reach such massive sizes.
Witham said he and his Pollinator Garden team have witnessed wildlife making this tree their home. A bard owl has been seen nesting in the tree and last year a duck moved into an original hole formed by parasitic mycelium inside the trunk. There, the water fowl built a nest for its ducklings. The ducks were seen peeking out from the trunk as students rushed by on their way to class. The European beech produces more nuts than the average American beech tree so this tree has provided a plentitude of food for little critters like squirrels and chipmunks for centuries as well. However, according to Witham, this particular tree had produced very few viable nuts in recent years.
What’s incredible is how Deering’s trees still line the paths and walkways of the USM campus as they do in Deering Oaks park. “I think it’s amazing that all of these buildings were built around these trees,” Dr. Bishcoff said as she pointed to how the trees shaped the design of the campus. She said there was a conscious choice made to keep the trees. This location outside of Luther Bonney is where the Deering Mansion once sat. “It would make sense that these were planted as young trees outside that house,” said Dr. Bishcoff. Dr. Bishcoff pointed to the paths many of us walk everyday and said, “These were the roads coming into the farm and the trees were planted to line the roads and paths. When the college bought it, the new buildings were built around all the trees.” We scanned pictures from the Maine Historical Society of the mansion and Dr. Bishcoff traced her finger across the path toward where our beech may have been, explaining that it may have been still too short to show up in the picture.
Portland has been historically known as a ‘Forest City.’ Dr. Biscoff claims people were very intentional about the planting of trees. She said, “Deering Oaks was a forest that was heavily wooded in pre-16th century colonialism. This indigenous land that USM sits on is connected to the earliest aspects of the British colonization in Portland. Through historical evidence of the way this land was deeded down through the ancestors to the Deering family, we can gather this land was a colonial homestead and farm for a few hundred years. The land became a college in the 1940s because the Portland Junior College was looking for a bigger venue after World War II. With the GI Bill in hand, all sorts of people were coming back from the war with money to use for college. The Portland Junior College, a business school, bought almost seven acres and converted the barn into the main campus building which pre-dated the Woodbury Campus Center, McGoldrick’s predecessor.
Fast forward to present day, we can still count on USM to be considerate of our tree elders. Witham points out, “there was a decision that we made just last year to make sure we preserved these trees with the new building project of the USM Arts Center now in construction.” They also preserved another big beech tree in Noyes park and moved the building footprint ten or fifteen feet from the architect’s proposal to accommodate the root footprint for that tree. They studied the footprint of the pollinator garden on the edge of the new development to make sure it would also not be disturbed.
As we are sitting at a picnic table near the fallen tree outside Luther Bonney, Witham is talking about the ecosystem and in my peripherals I catch a glimpse of a young student with one hand placed on their heart and the other on the fallen trunk of the tree with a deep emotional expression held on their face. My face melted as I recalled the many times I have stood in the same connection with the tree when it still stood. It was so moving, we all paused the interview for a moment just to revel in the reverence.
The Department of Sustainability held a vigil on the following Thursday which was facilitated by Witham. The event, which had over twenty attendees, began with a sincere reading of the University’s land acknowledgement followed by a passionate rendition of a few stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s, “My Lost Youth.” Witham pointed out the possibility that the poet could have been sitting and looking upon our very own beloved beech for the poem’s impiration. Leaves from the tree were handed out just before a moment of silence. Dr. Biscoff set up a print-making station so vigil attendees could make prints of their leaves for keepsakes.
What’s remarkable is that this tree will have an impactful afterlife and live on for years to come. There was a small series of silent auctions held which allowed the USM community first bid on pieces of the tree. The tree was divided into “pizza slices” from the main trunk. A couple pieces are going up to the University of Maine in Orono for a dendrochronology class where they teach how to determine weather and climate change impacts based on tree rings. A big slice of the trunk that was broken in half was taken to the Environmental Science Policy Department at USM-Gorham. Joe Staples is teaching a forest ecology class and he is going to incorporate the tree sample into his class as are loads of other classes within that department. The rings weigh a couple hundred pounds each. Another large pizza slice will be used to create a history timeline using the tree rings to compare to events and milestones that have happened at USM over the years.
Forethought must be rendered for bringing any parts of the tree indoors to be cautious of bringing in bugs and molds, especially in a place like the Glickman Library. One piece will be treated before being placed in special collections in the library. Dr. Biscoff said, “There’s all these things that go into considering its afterlife that you don’t really think about when it’s alive and in its natural habitat outside.” Some of the pieces will be carved by artists into bowls and eating utensils. There are many possibilities for the tree’s spirit to live on.
Several USM departments and individuals have voiced interest in the tree, offering opportunities for connection and collaboration otherwise unimaginable. Witham said, “The University is interested in taking an appropriately-sized piece to make a mace out of it for graduation.” USM Title IX Coordinator Dr. Sarah Holmes is interested in making a piece into a talking stick and discs for restorative justice work. The music department is interested in making some drum sets out of some of the larger pieces. The men’s hockey team is interested in displaying some of the wood in their locker room.
Many other special requests have been made as well. “It’s like a hallmark of community care that this much has been thought about for the afterlife of this very treasured tree like it was part of the campus family,” said Dr. Biscoff. Death has a way of bringing people together. “It’s just been so wonderful to see how much people care about this tree,” said Witham who acknowledged how his role as a sustainability advocate can be daunting but this demonstration of public acknowledgement and support has been profoundly inspiring. He said, “The fact that the University let me send that letter, that they wanted to send that letter, that the President’s office asked (him) to be the spokesperson for the tree just shows the value placed on the trees on campus.”
It’s been a heavy feeling for everybody on campus. Dr. Bischoff said, “I feel sad for the tree that doesn’t get to hear all the good things that people are saying about it.” Far too often, we forget to say these things to people or honor other living things while they are still alive. This mournful occasion has been filled with celebration, connection and a coming together of our warmhearted community. It connects diverse fields of study to one specific shared object. A reflective moment such as this, as any moment of grief, serves to remind us not to take time for granted and to be sure to express appreciation for the living, while they still stand. Our beloved beech tree will live on as a cherished artifact transformed into many physical forms and within our hearts, it shall keep permanent residence.