Today most of our oldest trees line our roadways, most of which our European ancestors laid out on surveyed section lines. But there is the occasional roadway that was originally a Native American Indian trail. These can be spotted as roads that do not adhere to the section line grid. In as much as I gasp when I see one of these trees cut down (remember that Oakland County was named after the magnificent oaks that the settlers found), at the same time I am fascinated to discover the age of the tree. Fortunately, the modern, huge professional chain saws that it takes to cut one of these beasts are usually well maintained and leave a pretty smooth cut that lets me closely inspect the growth rings.
In December 2013, one of these trees was removed on White Lake Road (which originally was the Shiawassee Trail) in White Lake Township. I rushed over there in bitter cold weather to get a peek at the trunk rings that would allow me to document the age of this tree. This tree had an irregularly shaped trunk section indicative of a tree that had grown in the open much of its life and had huge low branches. I measured an approximate diameter of 60 inches and an age of 170 years. Many of the growth rings in this tree were quite thick, typical of a tree that grew in the open and never had to compete for sunlight or nutrients.
Two years prior, I documented another Oak tree that had blown down in a very wet site in a very old closed canopy forest. This tree measured only 24 inches in diameter with a very round trunk section and 30 feet of clear wood to the lowest branch which is typical for trees grown in a forest environment where they must compete for sunlight by reaching upward relentlessly. The rings of this tree were extremely tight (24 per inch in the oldest layers) providing a visual demonstration of why old growth lumber is so strong, stable, dense and highly prized. Young plantation grown trees produce lumber that is much different in appearance. Although this tree was only 24 inches in diameter, it was 146 years old.
Even though these two trees were approximately the same age, they were dramatically different sizes due to their different site conditions. Even the larger at 170 years was well short of the life expectancy of an oak tree and the trunk had only slight distress. It also was only a small seedling in 1843 when the first European settlers were cutting down all of its ancestors to build their homes and barns, burn for fuel and clear the land for the European version of agriculture. I will never see an original native oak tree because there aren’t any. Such is the legacy of man.