We all know the age-old question, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? In the case of the massive white oak tree in the yard at Knapps Creek Trout Lodge, it did indeed make a sound when it fell.
Business owners Anne Mitchell and Mark Hengemihle happened to be out of town on August 17 when the tree fell, but their young neighbor, Tyler Faulknier, witnessed it all.
“He said he was washing his bike and he heard the noise,” Mitchell said. “He turned and saw the canopy over the house just disappear and he said he took off running.”
Luckily, the tree fell toward the river and not the lodge, leading to minimal property damage.
The tree landed on the retaining wall and a boggy area next to the river – its limbs snaking out toward the water. The owners were shocked to find that while the limbs had leaves and acorns, and continued to have new life each year, the base of the tree was hollow.
“It’s a white oak and their life expectancy is three to four hundred years, so it was its time,” Mitchell said. “I think there was a fungus.”
Mitchell added that it’s possible the tree had its own ecosystem because after it fell, a colony of gnats have been swarming around the trunk and area around it.
When a massive tree like this white oak falls, there is also a massive hole left in the ground and in this case, the hole has revealed that the stump suffered from rot, as well as nooks and crannies where the roots anchored themselves hundreds of years ago.
“It’s not firm; it’s pretty mushy,” Mitchell said of the tree’s remains in the ground. “Mark was talking about biochar. It’s some organic garden compound that they harvest from old trees – primarily in the Pacific Northwest. I guess the tree has to be really old to produce it.”
The couple ventured into the hole and explored its depths, finding creek stones and the mushy black substance that may be biochar.
This wasn’t the first time the tree experienced distress, as it had a split in the trunk which Mitchell said they anchored with nuts and bolts, but the weight and pressure of the tree was too much for the anchors to hold it for long.
As word spread that another of the town’s oldest trees had fallen, plans were starting to formulate as to how its life could be celebrated by current and future generations.
“My family and I have been talking about how to process the tree and what we’re thinking – we’re going to keep the hollow stump to make a garden around – but Sam Felton said he was interested in potentially trying to preserve the stump on town property, with an interpretive guide of the hollow stump.
“We’re considering leaving some of the top as fish structure and leaving some of the hollow bit and trimming it up,” she continued. “Making Christmas ornaments and distributing it through the family.”
As she stood next to the large tree that provided shade for families for decades, Mitchell said it is bittersweet to see the end of its lifespan.
“I was really sad in the beginning, but the more I looked at it, it’s kind of cool, too,” she said. “I don’t know what I expected, but it was not this.”