What would these grand trees say?

Published 10:12 pm Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Trees are good. They provide oxygen. They clean the air. They cool your house with shade in summer and let the sun through to warm it in winter. They conserve water, preventing runoff. They prevent soil erosion.

They give us wood for heat, wood for construction, wood for art. (If you’ve never seen Donatello’s “Mary Magdalen,” Google it.) They increase property values. And, best of all, they provide canopy, food and habitat for wildlife.

Small trees can be lovely. Japanese maples, birches, crape myrtles, tulip trees — all very beautiful — but the best of all small trees is the dogwood — beautiful three seasons a year.

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We are fortunate to have 10 or 20 small trees on our small lot. Every one houses birds by the dozen.

Then there are the big trees — gum, silver maple, tulip poplar, beeches, and mighty oaks, red and white. Again we have about two dozen on our small lot, which is why we chose to live here — big trees, more than a century old, a dozen of them.

But the apex trees, the big dogs, the real champions, are all around us. Some are recognized, some not. (Our big tree friend referred us to one of the largest beech trees in the state, behind the Panera’s down the street.)

The Emancipation Oak at Hampton University is not just huge and lovely, it is historic. The Majestic Oak at York River State Park is amazing in its spread. The black walnut at Fort Boykins in Isle of Wight is the second largest in the state. The bald cypress trees in Lake Drummond in the Great Dismal Swamp are unique in the state, if not the world.

There are perhaps 40 of these champion trees within an hour’s drive of Western Tidewater. So, how do you find them, you may well ask.

There is a book.

“Remarkable Trees of Virginia,” by Nancy Ross Hugo and Jeff Kirwan, with photos by Robert Llewellyn, was published by UVA Press in 2008. It is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen, and books have been my life. It highlights about a hundred of the state’s thousand champion trees nominated statewide.

The photography is astounding, catching each specimen at the peak of its beauty, no matter the season. The text is highly informative as to the species, the importance of the individual tree, and specifying location and scientific data.

It’s a “coffee table book,” but one that makes one want to seek out and appreciate each tree featured. The authors intentionally chose specimens from across the state, from the mountains to the Dismal Swamp, from Fairfax to Luray to Bedford.

I had never heard of some species featured, though I have seen several since receiving the book as a Christmas gift.

Recently the city of Chesapeake nearly razed the fifth largest live oak in the state to create a retention pond. When people protested, the city listened, and that tree will now be saved. Good call, Chesapeake.

If you like the trees in your yard or park, if you like to look at large trees and appreciate their strength and benefits, if you appreciate the survival of a centuries-old tree that has witnessed history unfold before it — borrow, then buy “Remarkable Trees of Virginia.”

“If trees could speak/what would they say?/Would they speak of tomorrow/or the past or today;/that the birds no more perch/that the birds no more play/in their leafy green haven,/is that what they’d say?” — Jeffrey Seow

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.