Moving to rural Connecticut right out of college hasn’t exactly been a recipe for making friends my age. So instead, I’ve gone and befriended my 150-year-old neighbor.
My neighbor happens to be a hell of a lot taller than me. Standing at 92 feet with a 110-foot spread, the Chinkapin Oak at the Mary Moore Preserve earned the title of State Champion Tree in 2015 for being the quintessential member of its kind in Connecticut.
Before meeting the chinkapin, I had already spotted the little star indicating its location on the Red Mountain Trail map. I spent three miles anticipating the oak’s size, but upon seeing the oak, my expectations fell away. Staring into its crown, I lost myself in its enormity. The experience of feeling so small was reminiscent of childhood when old homes and playgrounds felt unimaginably large and filled with promise.
Upon our first meeting, I resisted the urge to photograph the oak. I couldn’t do it justice. Besides, the luddite in me blames phones for removing us a step from nature’s total, inimitable reality. Capturing the moment takes precedence over living it, and I suspect the reflexive way we observe nature through the medium of a screen hints at insecurities at our comparative smallness next to nature’s preeminence. Even so, some uses of technology can enhance our appreciation of nature. iNaturalist helps me identify the curious plants, mushrooms, and insects I encounter on hikes. Certain photographs begin to do nature justice. In 2017, I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and beheld enormous prints of redwoods captured by Nick Nichols who stacks photographs to render the gargantuan trees in all their vertical splendor. https://www.npr.org/sections/pictureshow/2009/09/redwoods.html
Not quite being able to conjure up the chinkapin’s image keeps me coming back. Some memories are richest in their lack of vividness and in the ensuing desire to relive past awes. Staring at the star on the trail map, I cannot recall the peculiar course of the oak’s branches nor the feeling of immensity I experience in its presence. Language falters too. Language, despite its expansive possibilities, proves reductive. I cannot satisfyingly describe the tree – nature being too large, language too stretched.
A massive limb lies at the oak’s side, damage likely sustained during a winter storm. It turns out champion trees don’t retain their titles forever. I wonder how many limbs away the chinkapin might be from losing its champion status. Even then, the tree will live and die on. There’s an old British saying about oak trees, “Three hundred years growing, three hundred years living, three hundred years dying.” The oak will shrink, its wide nexus of roots will die back, but all the while mushrooms will nestle in its hollows and saplings will rise from the elder’s dying parts. Death produces its own song while reprising the original tune. These are beings that exist outside of time as we know it.
Maria Grace, the Sharon Land Trust’s executive director, said of the chinkapin, “SLT is proud to be the guardian of the state champion Chinkapin as well as several other large specimen chinkapins that surround it. It is a lovely reminder of the strength and resiliency of the natural world.”
The Red Mountain Trail covers three land parcels protected and maintained by the Sharon Land Trust: the Mary Moore Preserve, donated to SLT in 2013; the Hamlin Farm Preserve purchased with an Open Space Grant in 2002; and the Wike Brothers Farm, an easement purchased by SLT and the CT Farmland Trust in 2010 and 2014 using a combination of federal funds and private donations.
I included pictures of the oak courtesy of Maria Grace, which I hope will encourage you to visit the chinkapin for yourselves. It’s a half-mile hike from Mary Moore parking.