Ask the Acorn Man

I confess I was worried about my friend with the strong arms.

I confess I was worried about my friend with the strong arms.

A transplanted Big Apple boy, I know next to nothing about apple trees or, for that matter, any trees. But I have a crush on an oak tree about a half-mile from our Tisbury Great Pond house. The family calls it the Hugging Tree. Its symmetrical branches reach out left and right, welcoming those of us who drive down Quansoo Road, before we turn left onto Old Fields Path. The three generations in our household regularly walk to it together, some climb it, most everyone hugs it. I’m worried about the tree. It looks sick to me, near death. When my wife and I drive by it, on our way home, we say aloud, “Good night, Hugging Tree. Stay strong.”

Tim Boland, executive director of the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury and a world expert on oak trees, agrees to meet with me about the tree. We sit across from each other, separated by a large pine table, in the arboretum’s library, its walls covered floor-to-ceiling by 3,200 books. It’s a perfect setting for learning. Boland asked me to bring a small branch from the Hugging Tree (looking at the leaves, he tells me the tree is a white oak). I’m a bit embarrassed to be asking Boland questions about a sickly-looking tree. Is it right to make a big deal about a tree? It’s not as if it’s one of my grandchildren, in need of immediate life-saving surgery. But what Boland says and writes reassures me. Amidst the Vineyard’s oaks, which dominate the Island’s landscape and survive sandy soil, hurricane-force winds, and salt-filled air, 
he too has a favorite tree.

Boland writes, “I often travel to one oak in particular, found near the ocean….It is a supremely stunted white oak (Quercus alba) that grows at such an extreme arch it almost looks like it could separate from its stout trunk and roll like a tumbleweed into the ocean. Year after year I return to this tree like it’s an oracle, and each time it stares back, questioning me, ‘Where do we go from here?’ Did I mention, trees ask really hard questions?”

Trees have been talking to Boland ever since his boyhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The city suddenly chain-sawed and removed rows of American elms shading his street. Boland wondered why the elms, victims of Dutch Elm Disease, “never let me know they were sick. From this tough moment came a conscious desire to listen to trees, to understand them, and through this newfound relationship, understand the nature of the world.”

White oak (Quercus alba) leaf specimen from the Polly Hill Arboretum Herbarium collection.

As a Michigan State University graduate student, he traveled in 1995 to the impoverished but extraordinarily biodiverse state of Oaxaca, Mexico, with its ten thousand vascular plant species (the entirety of the United States has a little more than nineteen thousand species). In remote montane forests, Boland says he experienced the incredible poverty of Oaxacans, “a depth of poverty I had never seen before with several forests cut or cleared to create charcoal for heating their homes.” 

What he experienced in Oaxaca helps explain his current concerns, for humans as well as oaks. He chairs the oak research and conservation committee of the International Oak Society. The committee is sponsoring a project in Mexico, working with forest owners to conserve endangered oak species and “promote diverse, productive, and resilient oak woodlands.” Boland has just returned from a ten-day trip to the Florida panhandle and southern Alabama where he collected samples of endangered oak species.

His campaign to conserve endangered species worldwide is ambitious. But he has succeeded with equally ambitious education projects. He has started a graduate program in botany at Polly Hill that offers nine-month paid internships. Over a dozen program graduates have become outdoor museum curators or plant recorders.

He also has focused on educating Vineyarders. He and a team of five researchers are completing a “Vineyard useable” website (that they hope later will become a book) on the flora of the Island, drawing on 3,500 pressed specimens. He also teaches a course for twelve to sixteen Vineyard high school students (“depending on the size of their van”) about the evolution of plants.

And he takes on the unenviable task of educating uninformed Vineyarders like me who come to him with a question. He is an enthusiastic teacher. He sends me his recent Zoom lecture about oaks, which covers everything from their age (one hundred million years) to the planting of white oaks (don’t forget to soak the germinating acorns in Frank’s RedHot sauce). He leads me on a tour of Polly Hill, including a stop at a big leaf magnolia tree – a so-called dinosaur tree because it dates from 14.5 to 16 million years ago. He shows me an app that allows me to compare the status of the Hugging Tree and neighboring trees today to the status of trees in the same location beginning in 1844, when the land was surveyed by topographer Henry Whiting’s crew and a detailed map created in 1850. He loans me Douglas Tallamy’s The 
Nature of Oaks (Timber Press, 2021), which warns that twenty-eight of the ninety-one oak species (over 30 percent) in North America are disappearing, perhaps forever. Their loss threatens the thousands of other plants and animals – humans too – that rely on them.

Boland also reassures me about the Hugging Tree, which he estimates to be sixty years old. White oaks are resilient. They thrive on poor soils. Branch collars can be made for the large limbs that appear dead. And the Hugging Tree’s root system, several times the width of the crown spread, can be healthy, whatever the appearance of the branches and leaves above. Boland says that the room the tree has had to spread out over the decades, unencumbered by nearby trees, suggests humans before me may have taken a special interest in the tree, allowing it to grow into the unique form it has today.

Maybe I should take a special 
interest in the tree and, in the process, diminish my ignorance about oaks. I 
think of Tallamy’s warning, “I meet intelligent adults today, people who have excelled at all levels of their education and are successful members of our society, who cannot even recognize an oak leaf let alone tell me anything about the food webs linked to oaks or the many ways oaks provide the life support we call ecosystem services. Even worse, they fail to see the importance of such minimal knowledge 
of natural history.”

I call Sue Whiting, the owner of the land on which the Hugging Tree grows. I volunteer to pay for a professional arborist to determine what should be done to improve the tree’s health. But Boland, accompanied by his daughter Clare, visits the Hugging Tree, declares it “a magnificent tree,” and says, “I am happy to prune it without the cost of an arborist, who might over prune it!” He says one limb is hollow. But he cautions against removing it just yet. He ends with an upbeat message that elates me: the Hugging Tree “has a 
lot of life ahead.”