The Oak That Shaded George Washington
Basking Ridge, N.J.
In a few weeks, my town will bid farewell to its eldest resident, departing this world at age 600. Or 550 or 500—no one knows for sure. The great white oak standing beside the Presbyterian Church in the center of town is one of the oldest of its kind in North America.
Even before the announcement last fall that the ailing tree could not be saved, visitors had been arriving in steady streams to gaze at the barren branches, trimmed and truncated—the remains of a once-massive canopy shading the tombstones of 35 Revolutionary War veterans.
It’s strange that a tree could elicit feelings normally reserved for a loved one. But that’s exactly the way many think of the great oak: as a beloved figure around which the town grew from a small log cabin built 300 years ago.
Hundreds of years before that, the Lenni-Lenape Indians lived in the oak’s shadows. When colonists came in 1717 looking for a place to settle, the tree must have made a significant impression, because they let it grow. Felling the giant would have provided resources for the settlers. Instead, they constructed a church beside the tree’s shade. More immigrants arrived—Scottish, Irish and English. George Washington and his men, en route to battle, rested under the oak’s branches. The tree was there for the dawn of a new nation.
Beneath the gnarly bark, the oak’s longevity warps one’s sense of a lifetime and reminds us that we are all passersby in this land. And yet, inside our small town, a sense of belonging grows with time. Ten years ago, when my family moved here, we were often greeted with: “You’re from Texas?” The question was reminiscent of one I had heard 30 years earlier: “You’re from Vietnam?” Just as my refugee family would eventually find a foothold in a new country, my young, fully American family discovered our place in a new town by sharing in its aspirations and contributing to its successes.
As each wave of immigrants builds on the work of those who came before, the community invariably evolves. What endures are our core values: humility, hard work, and tolerance. The result is a land that grows materially wealthier and culturally more diverse.
Through it all the oak stood steadfast, seemingly immortal. Over the years, the town had doted on the aging tree, nursing it back to health after storms, droughts and diseases. But life is precarious, particularly for a 600-year-old. Emerging from winter last year, the oak sprouted leaves only in the lower branches, leaving a gaping hole at the top of its crown. Experts sought to reverse the decline, but it became clear the tree couldn’t be saved.
In time, the sense of loss in Basking Ridge turned to talk of renewal. Soon a 25-foot baby white oak, which had grown from the great oak’s acorns, will be transplanted on the church grounds. After that, the town will finally cut down the great patriarch. Its remaining 6-foot-wide stump and nearby young progeny remind us that all valued institutions—from a town symbol thought to have defied age to a nation and community, founded and enriched by immigrants—require thoughtful cultivation and renewal from citizens.
In another 600 years, perhaps the new oak will still stand guard in an undoubtedly different landscape. But the essence of the community will thrive if its citizens cultivate deep-rooted values.
Ms. Ngo Usadi is writing a memoir on her experience as an immigrant from Vietnam.