Joya Breems — Staff Writer
The leaves of a large silver maple tree on the east side of Dordt University’s campus, past the classroom building, are just starting to turn. The tree is large— the trunk measures 25 feet in circumference. Caution tape and orange cones surround the tree, warning passerby that its removal is imminent. A large crack is forming on the upper trunk. Craig Van Otterloo, from Dordt’s ground team, prepares for the tree’s removal. When measuring the tree, he inserts a tape measure 11 feet into the crack. It’s hollow inside. The tree must go.
“[The tree] poses a significant danger to life and limb, as well as vehicles, and will need to be removed soon,” Howard Wilson, Vice President for University Operations, said in an email to Dordt staff.
The tree is a landmark on campus. Dordt Emeritus Professor of Biology Delmar Vander Zee reckons the tree must be at least 100 years old.
“If it must go, we might wring out hands about it, but it’s clearly going to fall,” Vander Zee said. “A good storm will take it down.”
When Dordt first purchased the land the tree lives on, it was slated to become part of a parking lot. Ron Rynders, an administrative staff at the time, organized a faculty objection to the tree being removed.
“I bemoaned the fact that the tree that had watched our entire community develop over the years would disappear,” Rynders said.
His arguments were convincing; several staff and faculty, especially those with office windows facing the tree, joined Rynders’ side through emails that “sprouted like weeds.”
Eventually, Dordt incorporated the tree into the parking plan. It would live on.
“The effort was based in wanting to preserve our history, plus a large dose of environmental agreement that the tree would be able to serve us well,” Rynders said.
Around 15 years ago, Dordt’s maintenance department put a metal stint into some of the tree’s upper branches and sealed several small cracks with foam, hoping to preserve the tree for as long as possible.
“We did everything we could,” Van Otterloo said. “The cycle of life has run its course.”
The tree rotted from water seeping through the cracks, leaving every branch hollow. Van Otterloo said that taking down a tree like this is a “huge safety risk.” Cutting off one branch could unbalance the rest of the tree, causing it to topple uncontrollably. When Van Otterloo measured the tree, several bees buzzed around. Van Otterloo asked Rynders, who is also a beekeeper, to be on hand in case any wild hives nested in the hollow trunk.
All involved are hopeful that a full slab can be taken from the base of the trunk so the rings can be counted. Without the slab, there is no accurate way to know the exact age of the tree. Both Van Otterloo and Vander Zee estimate it was planted in the early 1900s, making it at least 100 years old. Rynders estimated it could be 150 years old.
Top Notch Tree Service removed the tree on Thursday, Sept. 22.Vander Zee has a history of preserving trees. When maintenance took down several elm trees on campus because of the invasive Emerald ash borer beetle, Vander Zee collected seeds to preserve the elms. The science building is home to a slab table, which Vander Zee made from a removed ash tree. He hopes the maple will have an undamaged section large enough to construct something. Most of the tree is rotten inside, making it unusable for woodworking.
“It would be nice to have a memory that’s not just a picture,” Vander Zee said. “Even just a bench or a plaque.”
Dordt plans to donate part of the tree trunk to Heritage Village, which requested it for their records. The tree will also be recorded in the Dordt archives.
Van Otterloo plans to plant new trees in its place. Two red oak trees growing on campus will have to be removed for upcoming construction.
“They’re already growing on campus,” Van Otterloo said. “We can recycle them to grow in [the silver maple’s] place.”
As Rynders watched the tree removal on Thursday, he reflected:
“I felt sad in one way that the tree which guarded our location for a long time stepped aside, but I also reflected on the transience of all of us— we will all pass into history and be replaced. It is our calling to serve as faithfully as we can and then to gracefully step aside and defer to those we have trained to take our place. May this old maple remind us to study history carefully and strive to live with effectiveness.”