High Street neighbors remember cut-down oak
Palo Alto valley oak was a century or two old
In Anne and Chris Sigler's front yard on High Street stands a barren oak tree, cut down to four great but stunted branches shooting out of a thick trunk.
Two weeks ago it was much more: a 50-ton valley oak, a member of a species (Quercus lobata) identified as so important to Palo Alto that it was granted protection by a city ordinance in 1996.
But when its owners noticed a deep crack in the tree's house-facing side, coupled with a heavy lean toward a neighbor's property, emergency measures were taken to dismantle it. The Davey Tree Expert Company has been working at removal for nearly two weeks, six hours a day.
Chris Sigler is an Oregon native, a place he said has "lots of tree-huggers."
"It was glorious," he said of the oak. "It was what made this house. I made it the centerpiece of my property."
When Sigler, owner of a construction-management consulting business, expanded his home a few years ago, he made sure to seek out and protect the tree's roots.
"It was the crown jewel of my home and my neighborhood. I brought the doctor (city arborist Dave Dockter) over more often than I went to the doctor. He hugged that tree with me for years. It was like losing a family member."
Section 4 of Palo Alto's Tree Technical Manual states trees that display partial or clearly imminent failure while threatening persons or property may be removed without the city's review or approval.
As it happened, two arborists familiar with the tree — John McClenahan and Dockter — did review its case. They both agreed that removal could not be avoided. According to Dockter, who prepared the manual, emergency removal "only happens once or twice a year," if that.
Dave Schellinger, whose great-grandfather built the house in the 1920s, said he "grew up under the tree's auspices."
He now lives next door.
"For us in the neighborhood the presence of the oak tree will be very much missed," Schellinger said.
The neighborhood's other residents echo the sentiment.
"It was a grand old tree, and it's sad to see it go, but there were safety issues involved," said one local who preferred not to be named. The tree had been visible from her yard some houses away.
Across the street, Lee Mitchell said he hopes that a cross section of the oak be preserved at the city's Junior Museum & Zoo on Middlefield Road.
"It would be pretty cool. Kids could count out the age rings and everything," he said.
Dexter Girton has been living next door to the oak tree since he bought his home in 1974. Should the oak have fallen, it was his house and garage that would have suffered potentially disastrous damage. The land all around his home hosts numerous fruit trees, many of which have benefited from composting of the oak's fallen leaves.
"It looked pretty. People who visited really liked it," the retired electrical engineer said. "But I worried it would fall sometime, especially when I worked in the garage. It was definitely a hazard for the safety of the house. Anyone looking at the tree knew that."
Last December another century-old tree had to be removed near the intersection of Cowper Street and Homer Avenue, only a few blocks away. Affectionately called "George," it was a coast live oak that sprawled well beyond the confines of the surrounding sidewalk. Prior efforts to save the tree, including cable support and the removal of seven tons of trimming, had proved insufficient.
In George's case, the tree's health was reviewed by an arborist hired by the city, and its removal recommended.
Dockter cited Shel Silverstein's book, "The Giving Tree," as a model for positive outlook on the loss of a tree. He said the oak on High Street provided shade and beauty for perhaps 200 years, and with work to preserve its wood, it could provide people with joy for another 200.
"Provenance is what makes any antique more valuable than another," he said.
Under the afternoon heat this week, Girton moved among the stockpiles where segments of the felled valley oak sat. He pointed to a stack of cross-sections leaning against a wall and a separate group of logs — future tables and woodturnings, he said, for neighbors who could use something by which to remember it.
Editorial Intern Pierre Bienaime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.