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Derecho ‘brutalizes’ famous oak tree

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    PLATTEVILLE, Wisc. (Quad-City Times) — ‘That Tree’ is no more.

‘That Tree’ — a majestic bur oak growing on a farm near Platteville, Wisconsin, made famous in a book by photographer Mark Hirsch — was toppled in the Aug. 10 derecho.

Hirsch’s son drove the few miles from his home while the storm was still raging to check on the tree and, as he rounded a corner, he could see that “she was gone,” Hirsch said in a phone interview Friday.

Responding to his son’s message, Hirsch, too, drove to the site and while lightning flashed and rain was still pouring down, he leaned his head against the tree’s “crumpled form” and cried.

“I never imagined in my lifetime that I would lose my dear friend, but I have,” he said.

Hirsch said he has not taken, and will not take, any photos of the tree in her brutalized state. Rather, he will remember her as she was in one of the last photos he took in June, “her majestic form standing as she always has, stately against the far horizon.”

Hirsch received national and international attention for his 2013 book, “That Tree,” which chronicled, through photos taken on his iPhone, a year in the life of the tree near his home.

Quad-City area residents got to know Hirsch in 2015 when he appeared at an opening reception for a display of his photographs at the Quad-City Arts Gallery in Rock Island. The organization also hired him as an artist-in-residence to work with junior high and high school students in Rock Island and Eldridge on how to take good pictures on a cell phone.

Hirsch gave the keynote address at the 2017 “Horticulture in the Heartland” seminar in Clinton, and many other people became familiar with him when Iowa Public Television featured him and his work.

So many people know the tree that response to its demise has been “unbelievable” and heartening, Hirsch said.

In one respect, he feels the need to deflect sympathy because he lost only one tree while people in Cedar Rapids lost nearly half their city’s canopy, and farmers have suffered great losses of corn, both in the field and in storage.

So when people ask what they can do, he tells them they can help replant trees and ‘release’ oak trees.

The Driftless Area Land Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust based in Dodgeville, is setting up a fund, he said, to help pay for reforestation and for “releasing” existing trees from being smothered by invasive plants.

One of the Midwest’s signature ecosystems was the oak savanna in which the landscape consisted of native grass and flowers dotted with oak trees.

But remnant savannas are being obliterated by invasive trees and weeds, and it takes manpower, equipment, fuel and sometimes chemicals to wrest them back to their natural state.

That is what Hirsch means by “releasing,” and money donated on behalf of ‘that tree,’ like a funeral memorial, could help pay for some of that work, he said.

Donations to Trees Forever also would be good, he said.

People offering condolences also ask Hirsch what he’s going to do with the wood of the tree, and he’s still considering options. One would be to cut out chunks appropriate for making wood-turned bowls, and put the chunks in the hands of a skilled artist so the results could be sold at fundraisers for trees and conservation.

“There are all kinds of possibilities,” he said.

Hirsch also is going to track down baby “that trees” and plant them in locations where they will be taken care of in perpetuity, dying only in the case of storm, disease or old age.

These “babies” were birthed by University of Iowa forester Andrew Dahl who, along with Hirsch, harvested as many acorns from “that tree” as they could in 2017 — the tree doesn’t produce acorns every year — and planted them on his property for replanting when they became saplings.

“He donated a lot of baby trees to a lot of organizations,” Hirsch said. Next month Hirsch intends to plant at least one more baby in a wetland area managed by the Driftless land trust.

“A lot of really good things have happened as a result of my friendship with that tree,” Hirsch said.

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