Venerable Trees Defined

 Two Trees  – Excerpt from Venerable Trees: History, Biology, and Conservation in the Bluegrass

by Tom Kimmerer.

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Venerable Trees - pictures of Bodh tree and bur oak
Venerable Trees: Bodhi tree, Karo Highlands, Sumatra, Indonesia (top); bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa, Lexington, KY (bottom)

Two trees stand on opposite sides of the earth. One is a bodhi tree near the grave of a royal family in the Karo Highlands of Sumatra. The tree is guarded by, or perhaps is guarding, two stone men covered in moss and lichen, nearly blending into the tree. The other tree is an old bur oak shading a grave in the Bluegrass of Kentucky. The headstone is eroded with age and, like the stone men, is draped in moss and lichen. Both trees are ancient, with the stout cylindrical stem and coarse branching of very old trees.

People in all cultures revere large old trees. From temples in Southeast Asia to the giant sequoia and coast redwood groves of the American West, trees are visited, worshipped, prayed around. They are venerated – held in awe and esteem.

Our relationship with trees is both practical and reverential. We can easily appreciate a large old oak tree while comfortably dining at a beautiful oak table. We have always made practical use of trees for food, fiber, fuel and shade. But our relationship with trees has a deep spiritual context as well that dates back to the time before we were even human. Our ancestors were arboreal creatures living in and among trees. When we left the forest, we did not leave the trees behind.

Most of the world’s population is now urban, yet even in cities we surround ourselves with trees. Urban trees have practical utility, cooling building and sidewalks, cleaning the air, providing shade. But it is the deep spiritual connection we maintain with trees that compelled us to bring them along when we left our ancestral forests.

This book is a celebration of the long relationship between people and trees, and a cautionary tale of what happens when we neglect that relationship. We will focus on very old trees in two closely-related urban and agricultural areas, the Bluegrass of Kentucky and the Nashville Basin. Most of these trees were present before the first permanent settlement in the late 1700s, and remain with us today, but they are disappearing and not being replaced. We refer to these as Venerable Trees to indicate their great age and value, though with only a few exceptions we do not know their exact age.

My first venerable tree, the first one that I spent time with and cared about, was an old American beech, rotten at the base with plenty of room to provide a fort, cave or superhero’s lair. My beech was a treasure trove for young boys and girls in my Baltimore neighborhood, with fungi popping from the bark or roots in spring and fall; insects, snakes and raccoons wandering in and out of the crevices in the rotting stem. And food – we relished the sweet crunchy beech nuts in the fall and enjoyed the work of extracting them from the shell. There were oaks, maples, plenty of trees whose names I did not know until a decade later. But it was the beech that was the center of our woodland play, and the beech that I remember individually among all the trees of my childhood. Eventually it died and fell, but I can still find traces of the old tree as an umber stripe of decayed wood under leaf litter. Years later, I became a forest scientist and have spent decades devoted to the practical utility of trees. But I never completely lost the reverence for that old beech and all the subsequent trees in my life.

In 1982, I came to Kentucky and soon moved with my family to a small farm in Garrard County, 30 miles south of the Lexington. Each day on my commute, I would see giant trees on farms, abandoned pastures and industrial areas. Many of them had the dead tops, or stag heads, that indicate great age, decline, lightning strikes or all three. The trees that I saw were bur oak, blue ash, Shumard oak, chinkapin oak and kingnut, and I began thinking of them as the venerable trees of the Bluegrass.

I began keeping track of all the venerable trees I saw. Over the ensuing years, many of these trees have become very familiar to me, and I watch them change over the seasons and years. Some have died a catastrophic death, taken by lightning or, more commonly, bulldozers. Others died more slowly for more subtle reasons, and some of these remained standing for decades after their death. Still others, but ever fewer, remain hale and hearty, shading horse pastures and gas stations alike.

I have also sought out young trees of these venerable species, usually in vain. One day in the late 1980s, while scouting locations for teaching field classes, I chanced upon an elderly blue ash on the edge of a field. When I walked out into the field to see this giant, I realized that the hedgerow I was walking along had blue ash saplings and seedlings in abundance. There were hundreds of young blue ash trees, all apparently the progeny of the huge mother tree. I paid scant attention to the signs of impending doom – the survey stakes, the distant bulldozer. A few days later, I brought my class to the site. The mother tree remained, but all her progeny had been bulldozed into piles, slowly burning in the morning breeze. A sign indicated a new housing development – Ashbrook. Today, 25 years later, even the venerable mother tree is gone, succumbing to soil compaction and the insults of suburban lawn care.

We badly need vigorous efforts to extend the lifetime of the ancient trees through better public engagement, better management and better policies. We also need to plant more of the most characteristic native species from local seed sources and manage them properly. We need to take action to ensure that the venerable trees of our current landscape are sustained through all the generations to come.

Beyond these practical considerations, we must be more mindful of the presence of venerable trees in our midst. We may travel thousands of miles to see famous old trees like the redwoods, while ignoring trees equally worthy of our veneration in the landscapes in which we live.

I wrote this book not to tell the reader how much we know about these trees, their management and their future, but to remind us how little we know. The more people become aware of the ancient trees in our landscape the more we will be stimulated to see them clearly, tend them carefully, conserve them vigorously and try to understand them fully. Most important of all is my hope that more of us will venerate these trees enough to ensure their future.