Saving Our Big Oak: A Matter of Life and Death

I need to make one thing clear before I begin: I’m a HUGE fan of trees and immediately become deeply suspicious at the sound of a chainsaw.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

So when our township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide proposed clearing trees around the Big Oak at Bear Creek Nature Park’s Center Pond, I needed to know why! Ben took the time (as usual) to explain that the trees under and near its canopy were affecting the health of the Big Oak, a wonderful open-grown white oak (Quercus alba). Its lower branches were either dying or looking very unhealthy. Huge, mature trees like this provide habitat in ways that younger trees cannot, and once they die they can’t be replaced.

Specimen oaks that are lucky enough to grow without competition benefit mightily from plentiful light, rain and the earth’s nutrition around them. And in fact, widely spaced oaks in grasslands were the rule in our area until European colonization began in the early 19th century. Look at this fortunate oak at the crest of a rolling prairie in Charles Ilsley Park. Quite a contrast to the crowded conditions for Bear Creek’s Big Oak!

An oak with minimal competition at Charles Ilsley Park in spring. Notice that most of the large lower limbs are still healthy and sprouting new leaves.

Once Ben pointed out the Big Oak’s difficulty, I looked forward to seeing the work begin. But with 1500 acres for the crew to care for, I had to be patient (not a quality I’m known for, actually.) This winter Ben, our Stewardship Specialist Grant Vander Laan, and stalwart stewardship volunteers, George Hartsig and Jon Reed, found the time on a series of cold winter days to take on the job.

For at least two hundred years, the Big Oak had spent its youth putting on weight and height near the shore of Bear Creek’s Center Pond. Below is a photo of the almost tree-less Center Pond taken around 1940 by George Comps who lived on the Bear Creek property from 1939 to 1959. He wrote a book about his time on this land called Incredible Yesterdays, which is available at the Rochester Hills Library. Though we can’t be sure that the photo shows what Mr. Comps reported as “a big huge oak tree” at “the end of the lane,” we can tell that there weren’t many other trees around the pond, or “our little lake,” as he called it. The Big Oak then must have benefited from lots of sunlight!

Our Center Pond 80 years ago with few trees or shrubs. Photo taken by George Comps circa 1940 from his book, Incredible Yesterdays. Permission from the author’s long-time friend and copyright heir Janet Potton.

Since the growth stage of an oak is about 300 years, the Big Oak may have another 100 years or so of growth before it reaches stasis. At that point, it can live its mature life for another two or three centuries before it begins to “senesce,” i.e., grow old like us. But for an oak, even aging can take two or three hundred more years!

Through all those centuries, the Big Oak has fed and sheltered the birds, insects and animals of its surroundings. Last summer we watch a pair of Red-bellied woodpeckers nest in a cavity on a “small” dead branch on the Big Oak, right over the deck. Even a “small” dead branch on this tree can be quite large! Several hundred species of caterpillars, the anchor of any healthy habitat, live high in the canopy of oaks or winter in their leaf litter – and don’t forget autumn’s acorns, a winter source of nutrition for countless birds and mammals.

This could be the winter cache of an American Red Squirrel, or the result of acorns dropping from the nearby oaks during a mast year when oaks produce unusually large amounts of nuts.

No other tree feeds North America’s varied habitats as generously as the oaks. That’s why it’s a keystone species nationwide and here in Oakland Township. Imagine! Centuries after every one of us has left this world, our Big Oak could still be standing tall, feeding and sheltering the creatures around it as well as storing the immense amount of carbon it pulled from the air to build and maintain its enormous structure. To learn more about the life-support system that oaks provide, check out last spring’s blog about them.

So I’m glad that Ben noticed that the Big Oak needed help and made the decision to remove the trees that had taken root beneath it. They had begun starving that magnificent tree of sunlight, rain and nutrition. And growing under its canopy, the other trees had little chance of surviving to full, healthy growth in any case. So work began on the west side of the oak.

As the crew completed their work on the tree’s west side in the late afternoon, the Big Oak became bathed in sunlight as the shadows grew long.

On the following day, the crew took down several larger trees, the biggest one being a Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) probably planted there by a squirrel with a nut many years ago. Ben used a carefully planned notch, back cut, and felling wedges to control the direction of the fall. The other crew members and I stepped far back from Ben and the tree, where Grant got this excellent video of the tree as it fell. It’s interesting to me that I felt real sorrow for the fallen Walnut as it made its tremendous shaking “Thud!” on the ground – and at the same time, I looked behind the devastation and there was the Big Oak standing free.

The felling of the largest tree removed in order to save the Big Oak. Video by Grant Vander Laan.

In the following weeks, Ben and his crew spent several days removing trees from the south and east sides of the tree. Some work remains. They will remove several trees from the north side of the Big Oak yet this winter to open up the area near the pond. Then, for the first time in decades, it will begin to be flooded with light! Rain will soak down to it roots in all directions, helping it reach out in every direction to find the nutrition it needs to complete its long natural life.

All Over Bear Creek, Nature is Breathing Easier

You’ll notice a lot of other transformations going on at Bear Creek Nature Park this winter. Ben hired a contractor to mow invasive shrubs along the edges of many trails, eliminating huge thickets of non-native shrubs and the deadly Oriental Bittersweet vines. Then Grant and volunteers spread wild grass seed to hold the areas until more restoration could be done. Visitors to the park will remember the stunning process that took place in the fields north of the Center Pond through invasive shrub mowing!

Ben’s team and many volunteers have also been clearing an area west and north of the southern viewing platform at Bear Creek Marsh that had been heavily invaded by non-native shrubs and trees. The beautiful oak grove on the peninsula extending into the marsh was hidden behind dense glossy buckthorn, as you can see in the “before” photo below when work began in this particular area in 2019. The stewardship crew and volunteers finished clearing the last mature buckthorn on the peninsula this summer, and the giant buckthorn piles were stacked, waiting for burning as of early January this year.

Volunteers and stewardship staff remove and stack invasive shrubs at Bear Creek Marsh in fall 2019. This is about the same location as the “after” photo below. (Photo by Ben VanderWeide)
Some of the large stacks of invasive shrubs and vines near Bear Creek marsh this January.

And here is my video of the piles burning on the snow on February 1. Quite a sight!

Burning piles of invasive and non-native shrubs near the Bear Creek Marsh with lots of helpers to tend them.

You’ll see there were several volunteers along with Ben and Grant to keep an eye on the burning piles – and to gather around them on a verrrry cold day. I think a few roasted sausages and baked potatoes were on the menu at lunchtime! Here’s Ben’s photo of the burn crew that day.

The burn pile crew: (L to R) Ben Vanderweide, Ethan Teranes (Six Rivers Conservancy), David Klionsky, Dave Kramer, Jon Reed, Rita Ski,George Hartsig and Grant VanderLaan

So when you see areas where invasive shrubs were mowed like the ones below at Bear Creek, don’t panic like I did years ago. Everyone on the stewardship crew and the volunteers are tree lovers like me. They are simply weeding as you would in your garden, but on a much larger scale. Eventually the areas shown below will bloom with native grasses, some native shrubs and hopefully many wildflowers. And for now, enjoy the graceful rolling of the landscape that nature created and which had been hidden from us for decades. What a gift!

So let’s celebrate with the Big Oak. Stewardship has come to its rescue. Let’s see what the future holds for this magnificent specimen!

The Big Oak soaking up the sunlight on the south side as restoration continues at Bear Creek Nature Park.

9 thoughts on “Saving Our Big Oak: A Matter of Life and Death

  1. Pingback: Field Note: Ta-Da!!! The Big Oak Stands Free! | Natural Areas Notebook

  2. Hi Cam,

    What a beautiful white Oak! We walk Bear Creek regularly.

    I hope the large black walnut wood was sold/used for good purpose. We have a woodlot in Leelanau County and have learned from experience that large/old trees use the smaller/ younger trees for support. Often when removing smaller trees, others can’t withstand the abrupt change in wind and weather effects and end up falling.

    Thanks for your blog,

    Trustee Jack Elder


    • Thanks for sharing your experience with your woodlot, Jack. I know what you mean about forests and woodlots. Large trees that grow up within forests surrounded by other trees generally take on a different structure than open-grown trees, having straight trunks and fewer low limbs. In forests the web of roots and windbreak effect of trees close together helps the trees support each other in bad weather. In this case, our BIG Oak had been in open, full sun for 150-200 years before the small trees that grew up beneath it even got their start. It had spread lower limbs in the plentiful sunlight and had plenty of time to develop an extensive root system. Those small trees hadn’t created a dense, closed canopy around our big oak yet, but it seems clear that the lowering of the sunlight, nutrition and moisture caused by the smaller trees beneath its canopy was having a negative effect on the health of the big oak as indicated by the state of the lower branches. The crew has worked to remove these smaller trees gradually. The first round was done in late 2018, so the current work continues that process after the big tree had time to adjust.

      The wood felled from these trees – both wood chips and logs – will, as usual, be shared for free with our residents at the location on Buell Road by obtaining a free permit from the Parks and Recreation Commission.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. We are lucky to have all those folks and as for me, what fun it is to be part of it! Thank you for your kindness, as always.

  4. Good work Cammie! I have several photos of the Large Oak, several the winter, as I’m sure you do. I believe this is one of the largest in Alice’s Woods, and my records seem to show a DBH of 160″, which would give a diameter of 51″. Did I get the right tree?

    • The one we’re referring to Paul is on the south shore of the Center Pond (what used to be called the Skating Pond) near the dock. So it’s not in the Alice’s Woods per se. Grant, our stewardship specialist, went out to measure the one in the blog this week and figured a diameter of 4.3 feet, which I think would be about 54 inches.

      • That’s the one. I think the south edge of the 39-acre Wood’s Easement must cross about where the oak tree is. I have a mission to inventory large trees, but haven’t started yet.

  5. We are so fortunate to have Dr. Ben protecting and nurturing our township’s natural areas! Thanks to his crew, volunteers and you, Cammie for documenting their wonderful, informed work.

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