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This big, beloved oak was spared the chainsaw twice. But, alas, it must come down now.

Twice spared, soon a beloved oak tree will no longer shade this Raleigh yard

Krista Padgett inherited the role of protector of a 250-year-old oak when she purchased her home from Wayne Crawford, who spent his childhood under its branches and saved it from construction twice before. Together they grieve its upcoming removal.
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Krista Padgett inherited the role of protector of a 250-year-old oak when she purchased her home from Wayne Crawford, who spent his childhood under its branches and saved it from construction twice before. Together they grieve its upcoming removal.

A longtime resident of Raleigh’s Belvedere Park neighborhood has entered a sort of horticultural hospice, and friends are grieving their pending loss.

The Quercas alba — or white oak — has stood for 250 to 300 years, an arborist says, surviving hurricanes and lesser storms; the development of a post-World War II neighborhood around its roots; public improvement projects including street maintenance plans and a proposed sidewalk installation, either of which might have required it to be cut down; and, around 1960, a direct hit from a lightning bolt that blasted off a big piece of its trunk and carved a hole in its core.

Under the care of tree specialists, it recovered from the lightning strike but suffered permanent damage that likely shortened its life. Powerful winds from Hurricane Michael in October brought down massive limbs and revealed the gaping hollow at the tree’s heart.

The average life span of a white oak is about 300 years, according to gardenguides.com, and this one appears to have come to the end of its life. A City of Raleigh forestry crew is slated to take it down soon. A yellow notice stapled to the gnarly bark of its trunk in late November looks like the Do Not Resuscitate orders some terminally ill patients attach to their hospital beds.

“The tree represents a lot of history in one place,” said Krista Padgett, whose yard at the corner of Midwood Drive and Dennis Avenue, off Capital Boulevard, has been shaded by the tree since she bought the place 15 years ago.

The tree dominates the city’s right of way along the edge of Padgett’s yard, and its presence there was the deciding factor in her choosing the home, she said.

Taking ownership of the house meant becoming the caretaker of the tree, which stands at least 80 feet tall, is 4 to 5 feet in diameter and was recognized in 2002 with an award from the now-dormant Capital Trees Program. At the house closing, former owner Wayne Crawford handed over a fat file folder full of information about the tree and the work he — and his father before him — had done to protect it from the forces of progress.

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Krista Padgett, left, laughs during a portrait with the former owner of her house, Wayne Crawford, by an oak tree that is scheduled for removal soon, on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Raleigh, NC. Crawford has fought to save the tree from proposed sidewalks twice, in 1954 and again in 2001. Padgett inherited the role of protecting the trees when she purchased the home, but the time has finally come for the tree to go. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

Crawford, now 71, was a baby when his parents bought the lot and built the house around the tree and another from the same era that once stood nearby.

“I grew up under the tree,” Crawford said, playing in its shade in the un-airconditioned days of summer, building forts from lawn chairs with his younger brother, dodging falling acorns in autumn and being sent out to rake them up before they sprouted roots.

In 1954, Crawford’s father, Horton Crawford, irked his neighbors by refusing to sign a petition asking the state to take over maintenance of the street, fearing it would require removal of the tree. He finally signed after the state assured it wouldn’t exercise its 60-foot right of way and the tree would remain unmolested. Later, Raleigh annexed the neighborhood and took over the right of way.

As the houses in the neighborhood have turned over, there has been occasional talk of asking the city to lay sidewalks. Raleigh proposed doing so in 2001, prompting Wayne Crawford to research the effects mature trees have on human quality of life and on their larger ecosystem. He dug up archived newspaper stories of his father’s successful argument to preserve his favorite tree. He appealed to city council members individually and got on the agenda to give the whole board a 30-minute lecture on why it shouldn’t risk the life of the old oak with a cement walkway.

His pitch was aborted when the council quickly voted to cancel the plan.

Crawford’s deep emotional attachment to the tree has been undiminished by his move out of the house. When he drove past a few days ago and saw the yellow sign, he immediately questioned whether there was any other way.

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Krista Padgett, and the former owner of her house, Wayne Crawford, say their last goodbyes to an oak tree that is scheduled for removal soon, on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Raleigh, NC. Crawford has fought to save the tree from proposed sidewalks twice, in 1954 and again in 2001. Padgett inherited the role of protecting the trees when she purchased the home, but the time has finally come for the tree to go. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

After taking a good look at the condition of the tree and talking to city officials, “I know it has to come down,” Crawford said.

When it does, he and Padgett plan to be there, to acknowledge all it has given in its long life, to note what they believe is the great importance of preserving things that have been on Earth much longer than they, and to see if there are some pieces of the great oak they might be able to turn into keepsakes.

Padgett isn’t looking for a perfect piece of wood, she said, but one that shows the way the tree has bent and stretched to survive.

“The beauty of the tree to me,” she said, “is in its twists and turns.”

Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.
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