A Tree That Nurtured Families and Sheltered Memories

Emily Biasini listens as Pat O'Connor plays a selection on her lyre.
Emily Biasini listens as Pat O'Connor plays a selection on her lyre. (Bill O'leary - Twp)
By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, June 28, 2007

Today, we toast the life and mark the loss of a tree.

If all goes according to plan, a 90-ton crane will arrive today outside the brick cottage of Chuck and Pat O'Connor in the South Four Corners section of Silver Spring, and the dismembered trunk segments of an ancient tulip poplar will hover like airships over the roof on one last journey.

It is perhaps indulgent to feel grief at the demise of a tree when the world is so full of human strife, but it is good to mark the passing of something that has lived for so long and seen so much and, ultimately, proved so fragile.

The O'Connors moved to their home in 1963. Even then the tree was the dominant plant in the cozy back yard. In the intervening four decades, it grew taller and thicker, until it stood almost 100 feet high and five feet across at the base of the trunk. Naturally, the O'Connors considered the tree an old friend, and they made sure it was correctly pruned to maintain its beauty and health.

More than a dozen boughs radiate from the straight trunk of this magnificent native tree, and when you look up into it from the side yard, you can see a web of branches reaching out in every direction as if to shelter and comfort the four families that live under its broad canopy.

That protective stance went all wrong on the evening of May 12 when dusk gave way to a violent electrical storm. Chuck O'Connor, a retired economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, went to close his back window. Just as he was pulling down the blind he heard an explosion and saw a ball of fire. At first he thought the lightning bolt had hit a tree that stands nearby in the yard of Emily Biasini, because he could hear debris raining on his roof.

Neighbors Donald Lockley and Jennel Harvey were watching the movie "Casablanca," but the storm proved even more entertaining. Lockley turned off the lights and opened the blinds to enjoy the spectacle. Then the bolt struck. "It was so loud, and you could hear bam, bam, bam, the branches hitting the shed."

He went out with a flashlight and an umbrella because he could smell burning and was worried about a fire.

Daylight brought a grim scene. The top 15 feet of the tree had been sheared by the bolt, and there were cracks descending on opposite sides of the trunk. At first, Chuck O'Connor's regular tree crew thought the tree could be saved. But he called in two other arborists, and by the time they came the leaves seemed to be smaller and the cracks larger. The bolt had cooked the cambium layer -- the vascular system -- of the tree, and if left it would decline quickly. Moreover, it was structurally unsafe, and a tree that had cosseted four families and brought them together now endangered them. It will cost approximately $5,700 for arborists to climb into the tree today and dismember it, and $2,500 to rent the crane.

The heartache and expense of dealing with an old, lightning-struck tree is not unique to the O'Connors, but the way they said goodbye to it was both uncommon and touching. In the twilight of Monday evening, Pat O'Connor lighted sandalwood incense sticks, set out chairs on the small lawn and invited her neighbors to a tree wake. Joining the O'Connors, Biasini, Lockley and Harvey were their other neighbors, Jacki Lyden, a host for National Public Radio, and her husband, Bill O'Leary, a veteran Post photographer. There were two interlopers: O'Leary's mother, Sarah O'Leary, and me.

We read poetry about trees, and Pat O'Connor provided musical interludes, playing her lyre. I couldn't help but think of Orpheus, with his lyre, trying to breathe life into the dead Eurydice. No such miracle was expected with the tulip poplar, but it didn't seem soppy or childish to honor a tree that had been such an anchor in these people's lives and itself had been around when neighboring landmarks, including the Capital Beltway, were built. Is it so daft to hug a tree?

Biasini has known it since 1960, when her parents bought their house. There was a brick grill under its canopy. "We would have our picnics over in the corner under the shade of the tree." A young couple lived in the O'Connors' house. "They had a little red-headed girl and she climbed the tree," she said.

Chuck O'Connor said the tree drew wildlife like a magnet. Once, he looked up to see a family of raccoons high in its branches; now, sensing its retreat, the squirrels and birds had stopped going to it.

I read a poem by W.B. Yeats, "The Two Trees," which includes the lines, "The changing colors of its fruit / Have dowered the stars with merry light." Lyden recited "The Sound of Trees" by Robert Frost: "I wonder about the trees / Why do we wish to bear / Forever the noise / So close to our dwelling place?"

Biasini composed her own poem for the occasion, which read in part, "When storms came through you used to shed / Like some enormous dog / And how mysterious you looked / In misty morning fog."

At the close of the ceremony, Pat O'Connor handed out glasses of apple juice while her husband voiced a farewell toast. "To our mighty tree. You have given us a good time here, food for the animals and birds, and a feast to our eyes. We thank you."

His wife lifted her hands to the broken canopy. "We are grateful."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company