By Chris Mosby
When a devastating storm tore through the east side on Friday night, it felled a tree that predated Ohio (as a state) and Cleveland (as a city). The White Oak had lived through droughts, blizzards, presidents, wars and the founding of the nation. It could not, however, outlive a microburst with 100 mph winds.
Friday’s microburst, an intense downdraft during a thunderstorm, tore branches from trees, downed power lines and left thousands of people without power. Streets flooded, intersections closed and police did their best to manage traffic in the dark.
A tree fell at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes and landed on power lines, leaning against the transformer. Trails were blocked, the wild flower garden was smashed by fallen limbs, and one of the biggest and oldest trees in the region was snapped at its base.
History Counted In Rings
The White Oak was a point of fascination for the Doan Brook Watershed Partnership, which had done research on the age of the tree, going so far as to conduct a coring, Nick Mikash, a natural resources specialist at the Nature Center, said. A coring removes a sliver of a tree to determine its age and history.
The group discovered the White Oak was more than 300 years old. It predated the founding of America in 1776 and the statehood of Ohio, granted in 1803. The tree was in Shaker Heights before it was known as Shaker Heights.
The North Union Shakers, a religious sect, settled the area now know as Shaker Heights in 1802, a year before Ohio joined the U.S. The planned pastoral utopia failed when Cleveland became an industrial center and two brothers began buying up land from the North Union Shakers.
The brothers — Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen — named their new land Shaker Village. It was incorporated in 1912. The village later became a city and was renamed Shaker Heights, the city said on its website.
The White Oak, which grew on the west side of the lower lake near North Park, witnessed the gradual urbanization of its surroundings. The tree witnessed a religious sect become a village and then a city with paved roads and electrical wires. It saw residents born in Shaker grow old in the city. It stood as those residents went to war, opened businesses, entered their golden years and died. It watched the children of those residents mature and move away.
The tree was not an isolated watcher of events, though. It was seen and beloved as well.
Ashley Hall, the marketing coordinator for the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, said educational programs frequently occurred around the tree. One visitor told her a costumed man used to climb the tree and then scamper out to tell stories to kids.
“In 1983 Fernway Elementary used to take us on field trips to [the] tree,” a Facebook user named Oliver wrote on the Nature Center’s page. “We would sit around the tree in silence and wait until this old bearded man in overalls would come crawling out of a hole in the base of the trunk. He would then tell us stories. It may have been the head of the nature center in costume.”
Hall jokingly said she hoped he worked for the Nature Center.
Memories like those shared by Oliver poured forth when news of the tree’s fate was made public. When the tree came down, it left many feeling emptier, more melancholy.
“People really have connections to these pieces of nature,” Hall said.
The Demise of History
Lightning didn’t hasten the death of the White Oak. Nature merely took its natural course.
The tree played an important role in its ecosystem. It was home to 500 inspect species and provided nutrients for parasitic honey mushrooms. Those mushrooms gradually ate away at the tree’s roots.
Mikash said the mushrooms may have been chipping away at the White Oak for a century. When the microburst hit, bringing tornado-strength winds with it, the tree was bowled over.
“It was weakened by the fungus and … 100 mph winds are hard to stand up against,” Mikash noted.
After it was felled, the White Oak’s interior appeared nearly hollow. People could climb inside the tree and literally be inside history, Hall and Mikash said.
In the aftermath of the storm, volunteers surveyed the White Oak and the damage at the Nature Center. They picked through the debris and found three acorns from the tree, Mikash said.
Maybe they’ll grow a new White Oak, a new tree that can observe another three centuries of human history, and serve as our silent companion in the woods.