The largest post oak in Virginia, which had stood majestically in what is now Arlington County’s Westover Village neighborhood since the time of the Founding Fathers, split during the vicious derecho that buffeted the Washington region a week ago.
Half of the tree’s massive trunk splintered and crashed on the roof of a home. The other half now leans ominously toward other houses, its heartwood exposed to the sun, waiting to be put out of its misery by chain saws next week.
“I’m wearing black right now because I walk past that tree three or four times a week,” said Nora Palmatier, leader of Tree Stewards of Arlington/Alexandria. “There wasn’t enough room for the tree’s roots where it was, but it had such a will to live.”
All over the D.C. area, trees fell, split, snapped and crashed to the earth last weekend, often taking power and telephone lines down with them. In an area where many residents value the cooling effects, pollution filtration and wildlife habitat provided by mature trees — as well as their beauty — the loss of so much greenery is another insult piled on the difficulties of the past week.
Arlington lost about 230 trees to the storm’s 75-mph winds, a grievous blow to the tree canopy that covers 431 / 2 percent of the portion of the county that doesn’t belong to the federal government. The part that does fared little better. Arlington National Cemetery reports that it suffered damage equivalent to that caused by Hurricane Irene.
In a statement on its Web site, the cemetery said it lost three of its oldest trees — two white oaks and a red oak with estimated ages between 225 and 240 years old. The cemetery lost eight large trees in total, and 17 others “are damaged to the point they will need to be removed.”
As long as electric wires remain strung near trees, arborists and other who work to protect the nation’s trees and forests say residents across the region and their elected officials must find a balance between the need for reliable power and the benefits of lush tree coverage.
“I’m fearful that trees have become collateral damage to reliable [electric] service,” said Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda). The council is considering how to rein in what some consider the overly aggressive tree-trimming practices of Pepco. Tree-trimmers “don’t have to be Paul Bunyans,” Berliner said.
The Westover Village post oak was a dominating presence in the hilly southwest corner of Arlington. It slowly grew to 93 feet tall, with an 18-foot waistline, and was estimated to be more than 250 years old, which would make it a contemporary of George Washington and George Mason.
Its crown spread 104 by 93 feet, but like many local residents, its home was a bit cramped: It lived in the space between the sidewalk and curb at 5845 N. 11th St.
American Forests, a Washington-based nonprofit group that maintains the National Register of Big Trees, certified it as the biggest post oak in Virginia and possibly the third-biggest in the country. The county says the oak was its oldest tree.
“It was so majestic, it was just lovely,” said Palmatier.
“It really is heartbreaking when a storm comes through and damages a tree like this one,” Jamie Bartalon, a county parks supervisor, said as he looked at the splintered tree. “Our first priority has to be public safety. . . . We unfortunately don’t have a choice — we have to remove it for the public good.”
The winds that felled this specimen had to have been fierce, because post oaks are notably tough. They are sometimes called “iron oaks” because they were used for fence posts, railroad ties and mine timbers, arborists said.
The species is now valued in Texas as barbecue fuel.
When Arlington takes the remaining portion of the tree down on Monday or Tuesday, urban forester Vincent Verweij, natural resource manager Alonso Abugattas and other specialists will analyze slices of it for insight into its age and condition.
A cross section or two will be used for display and educational purposes at the parks department, part of Arlington’s effort to encourage residents to plant what could, a couple of centuries from now, be the biggest trees.
But these well-educated scientists, who have been dealing with broken and battered timber all week, clearly had a soft spot for the old post oak. They plan to rescue some of the wood for themselves.
“I want to keep,” Abugattas said, “a piece of history.”