Goodbye to an old friend

Published 8:26 pm Saturday, December 4, 2010

It’s funny how people develop such strong attachments to — and attach such strong significance to — things that in any other context would be described as common or everyday. Museums are full of such things — flags flown during important battles, pens used to sign important documents, props used in popular television shows — that have earned some sort of cultural or historical significance.

Occasionally, as in the case of the great Southern red oak that graced a quiet corner of Cedar Hill cemetery for nearly 200 years, folks find themselves forming such attachments with things that are largely beyond man’s ability to do much to protect. Every living thing, after all — including a tree — has a lifespan and is subject to the ravages of disease and advanced age. In this fallen world, nothing lasts forever.

And so it was with that wonderful, beloved tree. Advanced age met disease, and a cavity formed near the top of the trunk. A couple of years ago, an arborist hired by the city reported that the cavity extended for more than a third of the length of the tree’s trunk — the tree was dying, he said. Then, in August, a monstrous branch —described as itself the size of a tree — crashed down from the area where the cavity had formed. Experts told city officials the tree was dangerous and beyond repair. The area around it was cordoned off, and Suffolk sought another opinion. When that opinion matched what they’d been told by the arborist and the first tree removal company, officials decided to cut the old tree down.

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Considering the danger to visitors and to the historic gravesites that surrounded the tree, the decision to remove it was a good one. Suffolk would have been held liable for any person who might have been injured or killed by the falling branches that all of the experts who had examined the tree assured city officials would be coming as the tree died. Even the cemetery’s preservation plan — developed with the help of some of the folks who loved the huge tree the most — suggests that historic trees that pose a safety hazard to the public or to a historic grave marker should be removed.

Given the facts, it’s hard to argue against the city’s decision. Unfortunately, however, officials failed to share the facts with any of the folks closest to the cemetery preservation efforts prior to unleashing the chainsaws.

It should have been obvious to city officials that cutting down such a beloved tree — even though it was diseased and dangerous — would tug at the emotions of those who love Suffolk’s history. And it would have been a simple matter to call a meeting of the group that developed the preservation plan or of the leaders of the historical society to tell them the situation. Officials could have even shared the findings about the tree during a City Council meeting.

Such an approach would have demonstrated a respect for the city’s history that some folks — rightly or not — suspect is lacking among Suffolk’s leaders. And it might have given others a chance to say goodbye to an old friend.