Opinion: When is a tree more than a tree? When it's our heritage
The latest winter storm claimed at least one of Portland's oldest residents, an Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), Heritage Tree No. 200. The departed was about 250 years old, one of several old oaks that tower over Willamette Cove from the bluff of North Portland.
The elder oak was a vestige of Oregon's oaky past, when Indigenous burning practices maintained great swaths of oak woodlands and savannah. It was for good reason: oak trees are more resilient to fire than conifers. Scientists call White Oak "habitat magnets," that support birds and plants. Indigenous people took advantage of this, as well as the elk and deer that oak attracted. Oak trees will provide essential housing for the animal kingdom's inevitable climate refugees.
When an elder dies, we all lose something. What of the departed tree? What stories can we glean from its rings?
The oak likely witnessed Captain William Clark make landfall in 1806 about a mile away, on the bluff behind what would become the University of Portland.
The elder oak would see the area's Indigenous Chinook and Wapatoo populations dwindle as white settlers introduced disease, appropriated land and forced relocation.
The elder oak saw a gritty port town downriver emerge into its own neighborhood and become the city we know, love and argue over today.
In its final year, the elder oak was there for a historic uprising against racial discrimination and police brutality. It, too, felt impact from noxious gases.
A few months later, the old oak tree stood beside us as we choked in smoke from record-breaking forest fires, faithfully exhaling oxygen into the atmosphere.
After a fiery summer of reckonings sparked by matches with entwined histories, it was ice and snow that took an old oak tree down.
Put our trees to work
"Never waste a good crisis," said Winston Churchilll, who aptly used science to win wars. Now that we face a multitude of crises, it's time to take a tip from Indigenous wisdom and use science to heal.
The best way to memorialize Heritage Tree No. 200 is not through a eulogy, but by saving its neighbors.
In fact, the United States Forest Service already is in Oregon's wildfire cleanup. Instead of setting piles of slash on fire and releasing more smoke into the atmosphere, the forest service is using onsite kilns to bake woody debris into biochar, a carbon-rich soil amendment that leeches pollutants, retains water and fertilizes the soil. (Another lesson from Indigenous land management practices.)
Biochar is exactly what the community of Heritage Oak No. 200 needs, including Willamette Cove at the foot of the bluff. The wooded riverside trails are closed to the public due to toxic levels of industrial pollution, as part of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site.
If the city of Portland is serious about cleaning up the Willamette Harbor Superfund Site, prioritize the most faithful workforce: the trees.
Trees protect water and soil quality by absorbing nutrients, decreasing stormwater runoff and mitigating flood damage. Most trees near Heritage Tree No. 200 are getting choked out by English Ivy. Invasive plant control is also good fodder for biochar.
In our time of crises, some say the solution to a sick system is to burn it down. But with all that good waste, you might as well bake it.
Margo Craig is a St. Johns-area resident and a tree lover.
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