Mary Maddrey, the preschool director at First Presbyterian Church in Aiken, sent out the somber news on Facebook last Tuesday: A member of the church family was sick and would not last through the next day.
A tree; that’s what she was writing about. But not just any tree. A magnolia tree that had served First Pres from the time the church was built in 1969.
How appropriate that the tree spent much of its life within the church’s preschool playground, gazing on the hundreds and perhaps thousands of kids who explored the tree in wonder.
But it had become a safety hazard, and early Wednesday morning a crew arrived with chain saws and a wood chipper.
They went about their work efficiently and clinically, and then a group of 5-year-olds from the preschool came out to watch for a few minutes.
The crew members seemed moved as the children watched somberly with understanding and even a surprising and touching compassion – their tears and those of their teachers lingering just under the surface.
“It’s pretty sad,” said kindergartner Jonas Flatten. “It’s my favorite tree, and I like to climb on it.”
The tree had its own name – the Dinosaur Tree.
Emerging from the trunk was a section that gracefully curved up and then down and back up again.
John Jenkins, a longtime church member, suggested a more accurate description might be that of a brontosaurus. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Jurassic Park,” when the visiting scientists first encounter dozens of computer-generated brontosauruses floating through the dense grass of a field, you would probably agree.
Kindergarten teacher Eileen Whitehurst has worked at the preschool for 14 years, and her own children were enrolled there. She recalls the little girls who were convinced that fairies lived in the Dinosaur Tree. The boys did not believe that, of course, but some were just as certain on St. Patrick’s Day that leprechauns resided there, ready to pounce in mischief like leprechauns do.
“I enjoyed watching the children sitting on the trunk of the tree year after year, a major part of their play and their imaginations,” Whitehurst said. “I understand why the tree has to come down, but it’s a bittersweet day.”
Nearly every class picture since Maddrey became the preschool director has been taken by that tree. It served as a wonderfully unique kind of playground equipment.
When Maddrey arrived at the school Wednesday around 7:30 a.m., the removal crew was preparing to get started. She quickly texted her son Russell, an Aiken High senior. He, in turn, contacted friends Tyson Smith and Brian Reichel, who had gone to preschool with Russell at the church. The three teenagers met there so Russell’s mom could take a photo of them with the tree.
“I hadn’t thought about it in awhile,” Russell admitted. “It was weird, because now it becomes very clear in my head. During recess (at preschool), the playground was the main place to hang out. The tree represented what the playground was and was a big part of my growing up. It’s surreal that it is being taken down.”
Everyone has a story
Almost everybody has a tree story from childhood, said Bill Trezza, a family therapist in Aiken. Trees are providers and protectors, and Trezza recalled his own experience, growing up on Long Island with his brother and nearby cousins.
They would walk to elementary school and, normally, the trip would require them to walk around the large, fenced playground and then around again from the back of the school. But the kids discovered they could climb the fence and grab a large tree’s forked branches, which would gently lower them to the ground like a parachute and save them several minutes.
“The children who are losing this tree today can help them understand early in life that the only real constant is change,” Trezza said. “Life requires letting go, and that’s the most primal fear that people hold. Those who can learn to do that are less disrupted by the changes in life.”
Yet some trees do persist, becoming famous far beyond the boundaries of a family or a church. The Angel Oak tree in Johns Island near Charleston may be close to 400 years old and is a destination spot for thousands of people every year. Environmentalists, fans of the tree and developers in the area keep trying to find a balance between needed new homes and the health of the Angel Oak.
The Dinosaur Tree had no such good fortune. Tom Rapp, the City of Aiken horticulturists, stopped by First Presbyterian earlier in the week.
“I hated to see it go,” he said. “The last time I looked at it, the tree didn’t have a crack in it, but I saw one this time and didn’t see any way it could be saved.”
When he was hired by the city a second time after an earlier stint, Rapp began meeting with arborists and later chaired the group. They helped him realize the benefits of maintaining as many trees as possible in relation to air quality and erosion. But there are aesthetic values, too, he said, which the congregation members at First Presbyterian certainly understand.
“If there is no reason to remove a tree, I’ll fight for it,” Rapp said.
The love for the Dinosaur Tree and the subsequent sadness that has followed its loss is tied to the spirituality and wonders of creation, said the Rev. David Cozad, the retired pastor at First Presbyterian.
Much of religion today focuses on matters of doctrine, yet theology can also be expressed through people’s love of nature, he said.
“Through that love, one can experience God, and that may be coming back to the forefront,” Cozad said. “This tree has been nurturing to so many. When some of these kids today get to be adults, they may not remember what church they were in. But they’ll remember the tree.”
Trees give character
Five years ago, the Lloyd-Kennedy Charter School got the opportunity to build a new facility on a Vaucluse Road estate, once owned, and later abandoned, more than 50 years ago by a Winter Colony family. The 10-acre site had many live oaks up to 58 inches in diameter.
Architect McDonald Law did no landscaping and removed no trees in planning for the construction project. He simply arranged the new school buildings around them. Law, who married his wife Illona at First Presbyterian Church more than 30 years ago, shares Cozad’s belief that trees are among the best examples of God’s work.
“Trees that are sometimes 50 years old or more have the kind of character you want to have on a site,” Law said. “They’re recyclable and actually store CO2, but they also provide shelter and shade that children can play under.”
Parker Gibbons did just that during preschool. He would go under the Dinosaur Tree and over it and across it. He would catch bugs around the tree and maybe a frog or two. When Parker, now 9, heard that the tree would be cut down, he mourned its loss with tears.
He wrote a letter to the Dinosaur Tree – about how much he loved it and would miss it. He showed the letter to his classmates at Mead Hall who had attended preschool with him at First Pres and asked them to sign it, too.
The last sentence from Parker’s letter reads: “Kids plus Dinosaur Tree equals heart.”