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Woods Hole Says Goodbye To An Old Friend

Brian Morris/WCAI
Susan Witzell of the Woods Hole Historical Society tell the crowd about the history of the copper beech tree behind her.

It’s not very often that members of a community bid farewell to a tree. But recently, about 40 Woods Hole residents gathered to say goodbye to one of the much-loved Copper Beech trees along Challenger Drive. The tree is about 150 years old, and its branches have begun falling off, posing a danger to passing motorists and walkers. The stately old beech sits among buildings owned by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The ceremony was organized by the institution, and was called “A Celebration of Life.”

The Copper Beech trees have become part of the fabric of Woods Hole. Now, one of them is dying, and emotions in the crowd were bittersweet. Susan Avery is President and Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She said WHOI wanted to give people a chance to mourn – but also to celebrate.

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
WHOI Director Susan Avery stands in front of the Copper Beech tree on Challenger Drive.

“You know, it’s a perfect sunny day not only to celebrate Earth Day, but also to celebrate this wonderful tree,” Avery said. “It’s lived about 150 years, and well past its normal lifespan. But this one in particular really needs to come down because of safety issues now.”

The tree is losing its bark – and its ability to support its own branches. David Salter is an arborist with Hamilton Tree and Landscape. He said the tree has developed a fungus – something called a “bleeding canker.”

“It breaks down the cambial tissue of the tree, basically preventing the sugars and waters from being able to move up and down in the tree. The tree subsequently ends up losing branches, and becomes at a point where you have to evaluate it from a safety perspective,” said Salter.

Rick Galat is Facilities Engineer at WHOI. He’s worked closely with Salter and other arborists to try and save the tree. But over the last 15 years, its decline has been steady and irreversible.

“It’s sad to see such a magnificent tree suffering so much,” Galat told the crowd. “And I know everyone here loves these trees and appreciates them as much as we do. If we could do something to save ‘em and prolong their life, trust me, we would do that.”

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
After 150 years, the old copper beech tree is losing much of its bark. Some of its branches have begun falling off unexpectedly.

Galat said he’s keeping an eye on the other copper beeches, which also are getting on in years, and will make decisions about each one individually. WHOI President Susan Avery said the tree will come down on Sunday, and a new Copper Beech will be planted in its place by Memorial Day.

You know, I think it’s our duty to re-plant a tree so that WHOI employees and Woods Hole residents will have something to look forward to for the next hundred years,” Avery said.

The ceremony ended with those gathered beneath the old Copper Beech tree reciting the Mary Oliver poem “When I am Among the Trees.”

Beth Colt is a Woods Hole resident and business owner.

“It’s really amazing – on a beautiful day like this – for the community to gather and say goodbye to such a beautiful tree,” Colt said. “It’s very moving. But it’s wonderful that WHOI is embracing the change, and giving people a chance to mourn it. (me): You don’t see that every day, you know? Colt – You don’t. It’s unusual. Woods Hole is a special place.”

Once the tree is taken down, its wood will live on  - as firewood, material for local craftspeople, and for scientific exploration at WHOI.

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
One last hug.