In 2005, the birth year of Balsamea, my father asked if there were any oak trees on the property. I had not seen them. Over time, I learned that there were many red oaks. They are one of our minority trees, but the mature ones number about one per acre, and there are dozens of seedlings and saplings. We would have many more oaks, were it not for the deer munching on their buds every winter. I have seen them kill a 3-foot healthy oak in two seasons.
On that day in May 2005 when I closed on the property purchase, I immediately installed a cable gate across the entrance. Dumpers had abused the property, a practice that ended that day, and became a considerable process of remediation for me. Still I find things resurfacing from below ground.
While opening space for access to the right trees to attach the cable, I noticed two little red oaks about two feet tall each. One was in excellent condition. The other was crushed under a fallen gray birch. I left the latter alone to grow in its own way, and it has done well. The former, I nursed and lightly pruned over the years, to encourage a nice geometric shape.
When Buddy died recently, I began turning my attention to other pets, among them several oaks I have monitored and protected. I have not named them, but I suppose I should name the ones I write about. I will call this driveway oak “Sentinel Oak,” so named for its position overlooking the entrance, about fifty feet from the road, and about ten feet outside of Rock Wall 1.
[Click any picture to see larger version.]
Four large rock walls run directly north-south through the property. The iron miners probably created them in the late 19th Century, among a few small, shorter walls almost invisible now. I have guessed that this was grazing turf for animals used in the adjacent mining village or farm. The mining operations closed, gone now for over a century. From USGS topographic maps, it appears the farm ended within the past seven decades.
I know that the location of the Sentinel Oak was the west edge of a farm. It spanned from this rock wall west nearly to the river. Sometime in the early 20th Century, maybe around the time that the farming ended, they moved the road to its current location from its original route along the edge of the river.
The Sentinel Oak is one of the late comers in the natural reforestation of the farmland. If I had not warned him to avoid it, the house builder probably would have destroyed it in 2010 when he installed the underground electric conduit. The electricity meter is now directly at the edge of the rock wall, about ten feet from the Sentinel Oak.
He cared about trees less than I care about clothing fashions. When I told him to conserve a particular couple of young maples, he nearly openly scoffed at the idea.
They are now important trees in the yard. Long before I built the house, I had “topped” these two maples while I lived for two years off-grid in the camper, buried in dense forest. I knew where the house would be, if ever built, and these tall skinny maples (made tall and skinny by dense canopy competition) would be at the east edge of the yard.
I topped them to slow their vertical growth. It worked out nicely. Soon the camper will be gone, and these maples will stand more openly as arboreal tributes to the influence of The Balsamean on the land, and as beacons of my love for this place that has shaped me much more than I have shaped it.
Plans for the Sentinel Oak began in its infancy. Beginning when I found it at two feet tall, I kept the area near it cleared and mowed. I monitored it for disease and “aberrant” branching to be pruned. I wanted it to branch out in the classical shape we humans deem aesthetically admirable. Now that it is big enough and proved healthy enough, I’m going to cut off all the branches below seven feet high on the trunk, so people my size can walk under it.
The highest leaves on the Sentinel Oak are now about eighteen feet high, and at the widest point, the branches horizontally span nearly that much distance, too. Eighteen feet now from two feet ten years ago. Don’t let anybody tell you oaks grow slowly. This here Balsamean oak is doing a foot and a half a year. But maybe it’s just a special grace bestowed on us.
Only since 2010 did I know the danger deer posed to young red oaks. I had noticed their browsing some oaks in the woods, but I did not realize how deadly they could be. Year-round, the deer follow the rock wall, shown by many tracks crossing the driveway there. Amazingly, they never hurt this one little oak. Did they detect the attention I gave it?
I realized the extent of the risk only after the tree was too big for them to hurt it severely. As I do now for many little oaks, I would have protected it more. Instead, I gained the benefit of an unknown grace.
The deer typically browse the little oaks’ buds in early spring, before the snow is gone. Their yearly attacks stunt the trees, and keep them from being much more than deer food. I am amazed that any can survive.
(In the Trilogy Part 2, you will meet the oak that I salvaged from deer and planted in the front yard, seen through the big window directly in front of me now as I write.)
I have bored you with this long story about a tree and related matters for a few reasons.
First, I just want to get the history on the record. To have such a record of other old trees would be a treasure to me, and I know it is to others.
Second, if I’m going to tell you about a tree that I love, how can I do it by mere botanical description? In fact, I’ve said almost nothing about that. You can read about red oaks in a million places. There is only one Sentinel Oak of Balsamea.
Third, I’m demonstrating things that matter to me, that are crucial parts of being The Balsamean, shaped by this place I call Balsamea. That’s what the blog is supposed to be about. It’s about being part of the life in these woods. Yeah, “it’s all about me,” if you want to put a negative spin on it, and then go away.
When Buddy died, someone very dear to me for ten years suggested, “Do things you like to do.” Thanks, Bud, for prompting that. I am having fun doing things in my relationships with my other Balsameans (of every kind, animate and inanimate) and with myself and with personal writing.
When it comes to my oak babies, size matters! (Ever notice young red oaks have green bark?)