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Words of Wisdom from a very old Bur Oak

Published on
05 July 2012

There is a bur oak at Woodstock’s Hennen Conservation Area that has come to be called “Granny” oak, in recognition of multiple generations of her progeny that are found all around her. At 49 inches in diameter, she is over 300 years old (born circa 1700).

Take a short ride to visit the Hennen Park on Dean Street, nearly three miles south of Route 14, hike back past the pond, through the woods, across the Eagle Scout-constructed bridge, take a left, and follow the trail until you reach Granny.

She sits on the fence line between the park and a tree nursery to the north. This accident of birth location proved to be quite lucky for Granny, as she was spared the ax when most of the trees around her were cleared for farming in the 1800s.

Imagine what tales she might tell if she were able to speak in a way humans could understand. She might tell stories of growing up in the 1700s, the dangerous years from seedling to sapling when she was small, thin and tender – a tasty morsel for deer and rabbits. Were there words of wisdom imparted to her by her mother? That idea is not as far-fetched as one might think. Oak roots grow in a way that they form root grafts where individual tree roots cross paths. They share nutrients – and disease – through their roots so why wouldn’t they also share information through their vast underground networks?

Perhaps, as part of nature, Granny understands that there is a necessary balance between life and death. That it isn’t personal when a deer eats a few oak seedlings – there are more than enough to go around, and there will be more sprouts next spring. Does she possess an innate understanding of the “circle of life”? Would she be able to impart those lessons to the people who visit her?

As Granny matured, and started producing acorns of her own, did she marvel at the abundance of life that visited her for nourishment? The deer and rabbits that came to graze on her acorns in the fall? The blue jays that carried her acorns off to store for winter? The many insects that made homes in the deep crevices that were developing in her bark? The diversity of birds that visited throughout the year to feed upon those insects? The multitude of birds that built their nests in her branches?  

How does Granny mark the passing of the years and the seasons within each year? Is she aware of the goings-on around her? Of the gradual conversion of the row-crop farm fields to hardwood trees that occurred in the 1970s and 80s when Phyllis and Tony Hennen were raising their family on the property? Is there some recognition of the growing number of visitors today who stop to marvel at this sentinel of the ages?

I believe there are many things in nature that we do not – cannot – fully understand. It would not surprise me if one day we learn that plants do have some sort of memory and intelligence. I hope that Granny and I both survive to that time so we can have a long conversation, and she can impart some of her wisdom to us all.

Hennen Conservation Area, 4622 Dean Street, Woodstock, is open to the public 365 days of the year from 8am to sunset. The park is owned by the City of Woodstock and managed by The Land Conservancy of McHenry County which also has its office in the farmhouse located on site. There are 3 miles of trails winding through the 25 acre park. The property includes a pond, wetland areas, a small grove of pine trees and many acres of young hardwood trees that include a wide diversity of species native to the Midwest. Dogs are welcome provided they are on a leash. Contact TLC at 815-337-9502 with any questions.