For a decade and a half I lived practically in the shadow of this noble, noble, Burr Oak in Omaha’s Bemis Park neighborhood (figure 1). There are many fine oaks there, especially between Lincoln Boulevard and Hawthorne Street; one, probably at least 120 years old but by no means especially distinguished, grew in our back yard.
I suppose they might have drilled a core at some point, but I bet they estimated the age of the Burr Oak as having sprouted in 1780. The tree is called ‘The Old Druid’ on a plaque nailed to it (figure 5); I have also seen it called ‘The Druid.’ It will have been familiar to the emigrants migrating past on the Oregon Trail.
Fittingly, the Old Druid has its own lot in the neighborhood: it has been allowed to remain on a piece of land that could comfortably host a mansion. Somebody is to be commended for this.
We had an arborist out to care for our oak tree once. He told me that our oak was in good shape, and that oaks spend half of their lives sprouting limbs, and the second half dropping them. It’s not a sign of impending death. The Old Druid has lost a great many limbs; in maybe about 2010 the arborists were summoned and they lightened the load on the trunk by sawing out the dead wood. Like many old, well tended trees, therefore, The Old Druid has an exaggerated, hollow canopy since the healthy limbs have been favored (figure 3). The tree is more delicately articulated as a result, though not craggy enough to feel like a romantic ‘Druid,’ perhaps.
These splendid old oaks with their impossibly gnarled bark (figure 4) and limbs twisted by time and chance (figure 2) are just the most wonderful things.
While in Nebraska last weekend we visited Wyuka Cemetery in Nebraska City. There is buried Julius Sterling Morton, father of Arbor Day, and more to the point, his wife, at whose grave he planted a Burr oak in 1881 (figure 6). You can see how that shapely tree, surely the runner-up to The Old Druid, is beginning to hollow out, but you can get a lively sense of how those trees can spread out.
The greatest oak tree in the world is perhaps not as old as The Old Druid, but it takes the prize for being the most romantic. It has sprouted immediately over the entrance to the so-called ‘Tomb of the Reliefs’ in the Banditaccia necropolis in Cerveteri, Italy (figure 7, taken from Instagram). I had a (paper) photograph of it once upon a time, but it’s gone in my many moves.