Out on a limb
Most people walking by Mitzi Kugler's home probably notice the unique twisting branches jetting from the large white oak tree in her front yard. The tree is the focal point of her property on Summit Street in West Linn. It shades the house from the sun and provides acorns for squirrels and birds.
What resembles the image of a face in the bark - eyes, nose and mouth - often catches people's attention. But it is the side facing the house that is most interesting, for that side was hit by lightning 20 years ago, and still has the hollow path of the lightning bolt to prove it.
The tree is now slowly rotting and has a smaller tree growing inside of it. Kugler says her family hopes to keep the tree up in the front yard, but only if it's safe.
'I really feel like we're the caretakers from the community for this tree, but what do you do? How much money do you put into it to save it, just to have it fall down in a few years? Who knows?' said Kugler. 'I love this tree. That's the saddest part.'
Nicknaming the tree an Ent tree, after the creatures that resemble trees from the Lord of the Rings movies, Kugler says her family of six has become attached to the tree over the five years they've lived there.
But the lightning damage from years past is taking its toll.
'There is a large pocket of decay that runs the length of the tree, probably where the lightning ran to the ground and killed living tissue in the tree as it did so,' said Mike Perkins, West Linn city arborist, who recently looked at the tree. 'Over the last 20 years this tissue has decayed and the tree is left with a hollow cavity inside.'
Inside this cavity, a new tree is growing. Anyone standing next to the tree clearly can hear bark stretching.
Kugler already has submitted an application to the city for the tree to receive a 'Heritage Tree' designation, but that request was denied because the tree was not in good health, said Perkins.
Known for their expansive branches that can reach as wide as the tree is tall, white oak trees (Quercus alba) grow slowly, but can live for hundreds of years. Kubler says she has been told that her tree could be between 200 and 400 years old.
The tree was measured four years ago as a student math project through Sunset Primary School. Then, teacher David Turnoy measured the tree at 90 feet in height, with a trunk circumference of 203 inches. Its branches, Turnoy's class determined, spread 83.5 feet.
Although no official testing has been conducted on the tree, Perkins says that from observing the tree it seems the tree is under stress and 'not doing very well.' Testing could determine if the tree would have to be removed, he said.
'A tree would have to be removed if it is in danger of falling or breaking apart, and this might be a reason to get some testing done to see how much sound wood is in there and see if it is an imminent hazard,' said Perkins. 'I think it's quite possible that the tree may just die before it physically comes apart.'
While looking at the tree, Kugler pointed to a new branch and questioned Perkins' assessment.
'I don't understand,' she said, 'because if it's dying why is it spreading out new limbs? I want to save it, but I don't want to take the risk of having it fall on our neighbor's house, our house or the houses (being built) across the street. ... And people are always traveling on Summit.'
Kugler says it is important to try to save old trees, especially white oaks because they grow more slowly than other species, but she says she just wants to do what's best.
'I don't think the long term prognosis for this once magnificent tree is very good,' said Perkins, 'although its life could be prolonged by watering, fertilizing, treating any pests and cabling the canopy together for stability. It's a living thing that I believe, unfortunately, is nearing the end of its life.'
But if the tree does need to come down or eventually dies, Kugler said she wants to use the change positively. Already the author of two children's books, she says she hopes to use the life of her favorite tree as the storyline for another book.
'I was thinking to do something like 'The Giving Tree,' something like, 'If My Tree Could Talk,' ' said Kugler. 'If it could be 400 years old, that would be a Jamestown Native American population. Scrub jays come and take things and (tuck) them away for later - like a little nut for another day. They still tuck things in my (gardening) pots.'
While at this time, the fate of the tree is unknown, Kugler says she wants to get a few more opinions and learn more about the tree. She says the tree may be a nice research project for college students.
'We'd like to save (the tree),' said Kugler. 'We don't want it to go, but we also don't want it to fall and hurt someone.'