My phone rang in December of 2016. Documentary filmmaker Mike Reynolds introduced himself, mentioned that he heard of me through The Historical Society of the Somerset Hills, and said he wanted to talk to me about my songwriting. Needless to say, I was intrigued. The conversation that ensued was both exciting and humbling and led to a great friendship and creative venture.
Mike was working on a documentary film about the Great Oak of Basking Ridge and wanted me to compose a song about it. If you were unfamiliar with this tree, you might have heard about it recently due to the extraordinary amount of attention it has received in the media. The tree, a White Oak, had become the symbol of Basking Ridge. Growing in the churchyard next to the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church and just off the town square, the 600-year-old tree had been designated as the oldest known tree of its species in North America.
Contemplate that – 600 years! As a history writer, this project really fired on all cylinders for me. Just thinking of what this tree’s life encompassed is incredible. Let’s put this into perspective. When this tree was sprouting in the early 1400s, many Europeans were still adhering to Ptolomy’s Geography, the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe and that all heavenly bodies revolved around it in perfect circles. Moreover, the Sun’s orbit around the Earth was thought to be between Venus and Mars. The planets in our solar system beyond Saturn had not been discovered. It was common to believe that witches were to blame for natural misfortune, put people on trial for sorcery, and condemn them to death for the practice of witchcraft. The tree was already 75-years-old when Christopher Columbus sailed to this continent. For the first 300 years of the tree’s life – the average life span for its species - the only humans that encountered the Great Oak were the Lenape people who might have used its acorns as a food source. The English Evangelist and Reverend George Whitefield preached to 3,000 people from the base of the tree and next to the Presbyterian Church of Basking Ridge in the mid-1740s during the Great Awakening. General George Washington and his fellow officers are said to have rested in the tree’s shade. This oak tree has literally witnessed America grow from unsettled, seemingly endless forests to the technologically advanced country it is today.
The point of Mike’s documentary and my song was to acknowledge the impact that this tree had on our area now that its time on earth had ended. Streets, a senior housing community, the town logo, endless memories, and more, have direct ties to the Basking Ridge Oak. In 2016, the tree was determined to have died, and the difficult decision was made to remove it. The process was an impressive, engineering sight to behold, took several days, and culminated in the tree’s total weight being calculated at 162,000 pounds. Many people were shocked and saddened at the loss of the tree. It was so easy to assume that it would always be here. If there is a bright side, let’s keep in mind that White Oaks (Quercus alba) is the longest-lived oak. I already mentioned that the average life span of White Oaks is 300 years, but its maximum life span is 600 years, which means we were fortunate to have had the tree in our midst for so long.
Writing my song became, and was, an act of storytelling. I wanted meaningful lyrics that celebrated our relationship with the tree. On a visit I made to the cemetery on Christmas Eve 2015, while the Great Oak was illuminated in the dark by spotlights, I hit on a concept. The Basking Ridge Oak towered over many graves from the 18th and 19th centuries. Realizing that none of these burials included concrete vaults, as is customary today, it occurred to me that the nutrients from the bodies of our late, respected residents - many of whom were Revolutionary War soldiers, church pastors, and other notable citizens – had been absorbed, utilized, and were now part of the tree. The cycle of life was represented right before my eyes. This led directly to the chorus of the song.
We become bones.
Bones become branches.
Branches form leaves.
Leaves do their dances.
In breezes and seasons,
They freshen the air that we breathe.
Such is our kinship with trees.
The rest of the lyrics and music were written over the course of a day or two. It took about a week to polish, and the recording process took about three days. I titled the song “Trees,” and it features me on guitar and vocals and as co-producer. I am very fortunate to work quite often with Eric Troyer, one of the best musicians and recording engineers I know. Eric, who has worked with John Lennon, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, and others, added bass and percussion to the song and served as the project’s audio engineer and co-producer during my recording sessions at his Charlestown Road Studio in Hampton, NJ. On April 23, the day before the tree was removed, I was invited to perform a 30-minute concert, which included “Trees,” underneath the Great Oak. I was honored and humbled to realize that, after 300 years of church bells and music, my song was the last music the tree would “hear.”
Gordon Thomas Ward -
An author, singer-songwriter, presenter, and radio host, Gordon has been a regular contributor to The Black River Journal for many years with his series of essays and photos titled Meanderings, which relate captivating, reflective views of the world around us. In the past, Gordon has worked as a ministry programs director, a teacher, and a teambuilding facilitator. His works, aside from the The BRJ, include songs, books, speeches, articles, poetry, and a keen interest in researching ghosts and hauntings. Mr. Ward and his family reside in Pottersville, New Jersey. Tune in to Gordon's radio show, These Days, on WDVR 89.7 FM and wdvrfm.org, every Monday from 5:00-6:00 p.m., and learn more about him online at www.gordonthomasward.com.
Mike Reynold’s documentary film, which still needs to be titled, should be released late summer or early autumn of 2017 and will feature the song “Trees.” My hope is that both the film and the song, through their focus on the 600-year-old Great Oak of Basking Ridge, will also give us pause to consider the people and places in our lives so easily taken for granted simply because we have grown accustomed to having them around us. Nothing on this earth is forever. Let us celebrate and treasure all the gifts we have while we still have them in our midst.
Here is a link to “Trees.” https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/gordonthomasward3
Commemorating the Basking Ridge Oak
Article and Photos by Gordon Thomas Ward