By 1850 the Shenandoah Valley was the largest wheat producing region in the United States. In 1864 this cabin survived what historians call “The Burning”. That’s when Union General Phillip Sheridan swept through the Valley burning the barns, mills and cabins to help end the American Civil War. Within site of this cabin the Yankees burned down the original Swoope Mill which used water from Middle River for power.
Aldo Leopold wrote eloquently about an ancient log he placed on the andirons of his fire in A Sand County Almanac published in 1949. The chapter was “Good Oak”. Below is my lament for a log I placed on the andirons of a fire we had in the summer kitchen fireplace at our home in Swoope, Virginia last week.
I held the old log in my hands and before I placed it on the fire I reverently thought about the distinguished service that tree had provided and all the history it must have seen. It started growing in 1619. That’s the year the first representative government was formed in the New World which was the House of Burgesses in the Virginia Colony. Ironically it was the same year the British brought the first African slaves to Jamestown.
The Oak seedling was just germinating and I’ll bet the rabbits ate the new seedling for seven years before it had a root big enough to send a shoot up that could out grow the height of rabbits in a single year. That would have been about 1625, the year King James I died.
The Oak grew tall and straight for 125 years. It provided food and shelter for wildlife, sequestered tons of carbon, pumped tons of oxygen into the atmosphere, transpired thousands of gallons of water and provided shade to the forest floor. Eastern Bison roamed under its branches and ate its acorns. Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets roosted in its branches. It saw Indian hunting parties and it saw the first European settlers around 1725.
In 1750 the Oak was selected to provide logs to build the first pioneer log cabin west of Staunton which still stands within site of our house. In the next century most of the trees in the Valley would be cut to make way for agriculture and the new European way of life. The Eastern Bison, Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets would become extinct.
My mother-in-law bought the log cabin last year and is now restoring it. It’s got big logs with narrow chinking which is rare around here because most existing log cabins we’ve seen have little logs with wide chinking.
The log I held in my hands was part of a larger log that had to be taken out because it was infested with termites. It was replaced by a new Oak log. That old termite infested log served dutifully for 393 years. It was with great reverence that I placed this ancient stalwart of the Earth on the fire where it would release the carbon it started sequestering in 1619. We raised a glass in its honor and watched the release of 393 years of history. ©
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It’s interesting that we are taught to think of history through people and buildings, but the deepest, most telling history is often natural. Eloquently written, I enjoyed it.
Just curious, Theoretically if it had never been cut down, and survived the many disruptive events of American history, is it possible for that tree to have lived all 393 years of its life before being burned?
Yes, it is quite possible that the Oak could have lived and still be standing. The Wye Oak in Maryland lived 463 years before it was destroyed and it wasn’t the oldest Oak around. It was the biggest.
Bobby, This is pretty awesome! When you think about how a tree gives, and gives, and gives, and gives. The story reminds me of one of my favorite books titled The Giving Tree. And just think, the big old oak log has not retired; it just keeps on working 🙂
This was a great story and tie to history. Many times as I have admired old trees I envision who among our ancestors or historians may have passed by, what animals and birds have laid there in the shade or been among their branches and what weather events and disasters such as fire have they experienced. When you see some of these large trees in urban areas you wonder about everything that has taken place around them and how they survived. The same holds true for the antique wooden furniture in our homes and the trees they once were. If they could speak or had cameras to record what they witnessed we would be amazed at the wonderful stories they could tell and show. Thanks for your thoughts Bobby.