Community reluctantly bidding farewell to 600-year-old tree

This 2006 photo provided by the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church shows a 600-year-old white oak tree that’s believed to be among the oldest in the nation, in Bernards, N.J. Crews are scheduled to remove the church’s tree which was declared dead after numerous problems started appearing in the summer 2016. The tree has served as a scenic backdrop for thousands of photographs over the years and according to legend, was a spot where George Washington once held a picnic. (J. Wayman Williams/Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church via AP )

For hundreds of years, an imposing white oak tree has watched over a New Jersey community and a church, providing protection from the blazing summer sun, serving as a scenic backdrop for thousands of photos and—according to legend—was a picnic site for George Washington.

But the tree—believed to be among the oldest in the nation—is not long for its place in the church graveyard that it’s called home for 600 years. Crews are due Monday at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Bernards to begin removing the tree.

The two to three days of chopping and pulling will draw attention from residents of a bedroom community about 30 miles (48 kilometers) west of New York that has long celebrated its white oak. It’s been the place to go for formal photos, a landmark for driving directions and a remarkable piece of natural history.

“I know it seems funny to some to mourn a tree, but I’m really going to miss seeing it,” said Bernards resident Monica Evans, recalling family photos during weddings and communions.

Arborists say the tree had stood for nearly 300 years before the church was built in 1717. It stands about 100 feet tall, has a trunk circumference of 18 feet and has a branch spread of roughly 150 feet. Officials say the crews plan to initially remove the large limb segments until there is a large trunk section still standing, then remove that section in one piece.

The tree was declared dead after it began showing rot and weakness in the last couple of years, likely due to its age. Arborists determined it wouldn’t be able to withstand many more harsh winters or spring storms.

Among its notable visitors was Gen. George Washington, who town officials say picnicked at the tree with the Marquis de Lafayette. The Rev. George Whitefield, a noted evangelist, also preached to more than 3,000 people beneath the tree in 1740.

“It has been an integral part of the town, that’s for sure,” said Jon Klippel, a member of the church’s planning council. “It has always been there, even before there was a town, and over the years many people have met there, been photographed there, had a meal under the tree. We’ve been blessed to have it here.”

The tree’s pending removal is a reminder of how older are starting to become less common across the nation.

Experts say fewer trees are replicating the old oak’s 600-year lifespan. They note that several factors—including droughts, intensive wildfires and invasive insects—can greatly harm trees, which become more susceptible to damage as they age.

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