My View | Andrew Macdonald: Obituary for a pin oak (quercus palustris)

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My View | Andrew Macdonald: Obituary for a pin oak (quercus palustris)
The 150-year-old oak tree by Parker Gray Stadium, named the "Witness Tree" by activists, was cut down by ACPS.(Photo/McArthur Myers)
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I was the stately, towering pin oak that was cut down to make room for a concession stand for the new sports stadium at T.C Williams High School. To some of my friends, I was known as the Witness Tree because of my age and location. I was not 100% sure of my age when I died, but I can say with confidence that I took root when Alexandria was still a segregated city.

I’m called a pin oak because of the many short, slender twigs that are located along my branches and limbs. Some say though that the name came about because my hard wood was used in colonial buildings to make pins to hold the framing together. I’m also known as swamp oak, water oak and swamp Spanish oak because of my tolerance for wet conditions. My closest relatives are also members of the red oak family that includes red, black, blackjack, northern pin and shingle oaks. 

We all share a few traits in common. We have bristles or points on the lobes of our leaves and acorn fruits that take two years to mature. They are dropped in the fall and sprout, if an opportunity arises, the following spring. Around here, that’s also when the shadbush blooms and shad and herring are migrating up the tidal Potomac to spawn.

It took me a good 20 years to start producing acorns, but once I did I never stopped. One fall, I produced upward of 15,000 acorns. Birds like the white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse and blue jay loved my acorns because of their small size. 

I owed my start in life to one such zygote-bearing acorn that was probably dropped by a bird in just the right location, which for me means soil that is acidic and often wet. I didn’t have a deep taproot, but that didn’t stop me from getting the kind of nourishment I needed to become the tall, attractive, pyramid-shaped pin oak that I was when I was felled. 

It’s hard being a tree in an urban area. I had to work incredibly hard to reach this size. Along the way I helped others too by providing food for the caterpillars of several hairstreak butterflies and duskywing skippers that also feed on the foliage of my fellow oaks. The caterpillars of Edward’s hairstreak feed only on species of red oak of which I am a member. The caterpillars of numerous moths, which are eaten by birds, made their home in my leaves too.

For those that got to know me during my long life, you may have noticed that I had deeply lobed leaves arranged in an alternate fashion along branches that turned red briefly in autumn, then bronze. You may never have seen my small flowers though when they appeared each spring along my branches. Remember me this fall when you look up at another tall oak. 

The old pin oak at T.C. Williams leaves behind generations of creatures, including humans, that benefitted from its existence in many unseen and unappreciated ways. Several thousand people signed a petition asking the school board and council to spare its life, but the petitioners were told that there was no space in the stadium for it and it had to go.

We can never know what a tree feels when it is killed, but those of us who sought to prevent its untimely death grieve all the same for the loss of this majestic and venerable pin oak. 

The writer is former vice mayor of Alexandria and chair of the Environmental Council of Alexandria.

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