Friday, October 5, 2012

Olympic Oak in Connellsvile, PA

I always say that every oak tells a story, it's just that we know some of the stories and we don't know others.  One English oak in Connellsville, PA tells a truly remarkable story.

1936.  Berlin.  Jesse Owens has already trampled claims of Aryan supremacy (and then I did it again 50 years later simply by being Aryan and a whole lot less than supreme).

John Woodruff, a gangly, inexperienced youth of 19 is competing for the USA at 800 meters.  A combination of a very slow pace, poor track positioning and a bunch of white dudes who don’t want to see another African American triumph mean Woodruff is completely boxed in.  Not wanting to risk disqualification by pushing his way free, he comes to a complete stop, lets the field pass him by, sprints to the outside and wins the race going away.

He arrived back home to Connellsville, PA with two mementoes of the ’36 games:  His gold medal and an English oak (Quercus robur) seedling.

He planted the seedling oak at his high school track (click on the link and scroll down).  A couple of things struck me about the photograph and the article.  The tree is 76 years old.  People always tend to overestimate the age of oak trees, based on the underlying assumption that they are extremely slow growing.  Ask anyone how old this tree is without letting them read the commemorative plaque and I guarantee they’ll say 100 to 150 years old, or more.  They would assume that it predated the stadium and was already so big that the stadium builders wanted to save it (as if).

The other thing is that I would take mild issue with the writer’s claim that English oak are, “not especially fond of western Pennsylvania’s frigid winters.”  The native range of English oak spans the better part of Europe from Scandinavia and Russia to Italy’s toe.  Depending on the seed source English oak are very well equipped for cold weather.  For many years I have been exchanging acorns with a friend in the Pittsburgh area who has a thriving English oak in his back yard.  (By "exchanging" I mean that he kindly sends me acorns while I send him Quercus doodly x squat.)

Further to my first point about growth rate:  I just looked up the range of English oak to make my second point and found a page from a British arboretum with thiswonderfully English turn of phrase:  “Popularly supposed to be slow growing, really quite fast, up to 60cm in a year for a few years.  In good soil to 20 x 2m by 50 years. Girth increase slowing from 4cm to 2.5cm annually by 250 years, then decreasing.”   

Ah yes, I can see where the slow growth thing comes from:  After strapping on an inch of diameter per year (a rate which rivals loblolly pine) for the better part of THREE CENTURIES the growth rate does tend to taper off.  What a slacker.

John Woodruff’s track career was shortened by World War II.  He served our country with distinction both in WWII and in Korea, and had a very distinguished career in sociology and social work.

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