It was the year 1815 or there about, in what is now the state of Pennsylvania, when Major Bentley let stand an oak when he cleared the land along a creek in a forest fifty yards from the Tioga Creek. When he gave his land to the Evergreen Cemetery that same tree was gracefully present.
And it still stands today. The shadow of its crown casts over 2,000 graves, many of them pioneers of yesteryear.
I visited the oak this November past. While a crew of observers watched it sway, its leaves rustling gently in a morning breeze, an arborist named Andrew, son of a Liberty local named Phelps, propelled himself into its crown, some eighty feet above the ground. With grace he pulled himself on high, into the arms of the majestic oak’s embrace.
Then from branch to branch he swung, taking his time, methodical in his approach. He was there to gauge its pain. The cemetery caretakers had sent out a plea, answered by the Tioga County Woodland Owners Association president, who called his members to gather ’round. A crack had formed, a telltale sign Major Bentley’s oak’s heart was decayed. Yet the oak bore its malady with dignity. Nary a branch had died; just a few leaves were dead. Some twenty tons of solid oak stretched out above Andrew’s head. He spends his days climbing trees, and his assessment was the mighty oak was worth saving.
“It’ll last a few more years, or many more,” he said,
“But we ought to take some weight off...here, and here...a strap or two around its girth...some tethers to stop the twist and turns,” when nature’s winds roar through its crown. Some said, “Why waste your time? It’s old, it’s damaged, it’s past its prime.” But I looked around, and I saw the graves beneath its majestic base, easily a hundred souls lying buried within its reach. Weathered headstones as old as the tree stand next to those of more recent memory. Would all those memories be the same without the oak that has stood resolute for 200 years?
Perhaps I should mention that this oak is very unique. Not only is it thought to have stood now some two hundred years, it is eighty-four feet tall, and the spread of its crown is 109 feet. The Woodland Owners entered her measure in the Big Trees of Pennsylvania Contest that day, and that is a record, I am proud to say. With a score of 306 points in the Big Trees of Pennsylvania Registry, Major Bentley’s oak is now ranked as the second-largest oak in all of Tioga County, Pennsylvania, and the Woodland Owners are hoping to raise $2,800 to cable it up later this year, tethering up its limbs and trimming some twenty tons of excess weight (donations can be made to the Evergreen Cemetery in the name of saving Major Bentley’s oak: Evergreen Cemetery, c/o John LaVancher, Secretary, 15 Wellsboro Street, Tioga, PA).
I went back recently, fearing that the winds of March, come late this year, had toppled Major Bentley’s oak. But the oak stood strong. Nary a twig had fallen to the ground; the gale-force winds that had roared through town had left the oak with leaves still bound. Mesmerized, I stood within its shade, reflecting on the upcoming Memorial Day and the sounds of human hands tending graves and mowing grass, honoring those who were laid to rest, and those who gave their lives in wars long past.
Major Bentley’s oak is not alone; there are evergreens planted near the knoll, and a juniper guards more than one headstone. Arborvitaes are planted near the vault of a family who once walked this earth. And in just a few weeks the flowers will arrive, baskets and plantings of solace and pride. Some for the veterans who served in war after war—and to each of those a flag, a token of our national tribute.