Preserving a presence

Jul. 13, 2014 @ 04:55 PM

The story of the E.K. Powe oak tree seems so quintessentially Durham – in a very good way – that it is worth celebrating.

If you read reporter Lauren Horsch’s story in The Herald-Sun Saturday, or follow the energetic discussions on the Old West Durham neighborhood email list, you’ll know that the E. K. Powe community and the surrounding neighborhood turned the unfortunate demise of an icon at the elementary school into a multi-pronged opportunity.

A willow oak that had stood on the property for what is estimated to be a century had come, as willow oaks will, to the end of its life span. Despite loving care by generations of Powe parents and staff, insect infestations finally felled the tree that had exceeded by a decade or so the average life of the variety.

The tree was more than just a stately source of shade on the school grounds. Its base was a gathering spot, a site of many a Friday morning “coffee at the oak,” an opportunity for the school’s deeply engaged parents to mingle and swap news.

“We’ve been good stewards of it,” Powe parent Michele Kloda said. “No one has hacked their initials into it, the root system has remained viable, it’s had plenty of room to grow. It really did live out its life.”

When a couple of large limbs fell recently, the community swung into action. In close concert with the Durham Public Schools  maintenance department, which was fully open to creative ideas, parents, staff and neighbors brainstormed ways to preserve the tree’s presence.

Each classroom will have a “cookie,” or cross-section of the tree – a ready-made classroom exercise in counting rings to determine a tree’s age, for example. A large section will become a natural playscape at the N. C. Museum of Life and Science. Salvaged wood will be used for other classroom projects, Kloda says.

Over the next several weeks, the school community will discuss how to use the remaining section of trunk – perhaps as a sculpture project.

The collaboration of the community, school officials and parents was a wonderful response to a challenge that could easily have ended with a more traditional, almost mechanical response. It would have been easy to simply write off the diseased tree, bring in the chainsaws and haul away its remains to a landfill or salvage yard.

Time was short. As all involved recognized, once large limbs began to break off, the tree posed a clear danger.

But the process combined a chance for many stakeholders to be involved with the swift resolution the situation called for.

The whole episode amply demonstrated how a community can coalesce to imaginatively preserve an iconic piece of its heritage.