The Big Tree

There is a tree not far from town that holds a particular mystique. When I first moved here for college, I hadn’t heard of it, even though I grew up only 35 miles away and came in for flute lessons all the time. I’m not actually sure when it first crossed my radar. I suspect I “discovered” it on my own and only later learned that I was decades late to the party.

It’s a burr oak standing in the Missouri River bottoms, not far from the Katy Trail, and it’s 400 years old. And my community loves it. (Enough to give it a Facebook page.) A few years ago, in one of the bad droughts, people started carting in gray water from their homes to dump at its feet.

It’s hard to get a sense of the scope of the thing from a picture. It looks like a tree, you know? So here are a couple of attempts.

I took that picture last week on one of my birthday outings. That root sticking out past my backpack & back tire is tall enough to sit on with your legs at 90 degrees. Also, the bike is 15-20 feet from the trunk.

In 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, when everyone was stir crazy and anxious, we started doing outdoor field trips. Lunch at the Big Tree was one of them–early spring, before it had leafed out. This might give you a better perspective on size. That’s my then-8-year-old.

Better still is this illustration. We decided to see if our family of 6 could stretch our arms all the way around the tree. We could… barely.

Just a few months later, the tree was struck by lightning and caught fire. Facebook went mad. It was part of the “it’s 2020 and the world is ending” that we all felt at that time. Fortunately, the fire department came and extinguished the fire. But you can still see the black marks in its wizened trunk.

In the wake of that fire, arborists came out and said it would survive, but it needed some help. They did some serious trimming and installed lightning cables and security cameras to try to discourage vandalism.

I love this tree. When they did the work, it was written up in the paper and they said people are hurting it by loving it as well as vandalism. I winced, knowing we are part of that love, compacting the ground around it. Now there are signs telling people not to park under the tree.

I hope they are right and it outlasts us. Because it is a thing of beauty and a sign to me of the glory of God.