A Mighty Oak

Midewin Witness Tree, 2019

My dad is dying. As is this ancient oak.

I love this oak, this witness tree. It was already old — 130 years old — when a surveyor blazed it as a reference point in the course of dividing the Illinois prairie into square mile sections for sale. It witnessed the seasonal encampents of Pottawatomie give way to farmers who built fences, hedgerows and homes to stay. It witnessed roaming bison replaced by grazing cattle and prairie grasses supplanted by corn. It witnessed soldier-straight rows of corn developed into regimented rows of munitions bunkers. It has lived long enough to witness the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant rechristened and reborn as the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

I love my dad. As his son, allow me to be his witness. My dad’s dad was a peasant farmer from Sweden, who came to Amerika in the late 1800s in search of a better life. Like many immigrant Swedes, he ended up working for the Pullman Company as an inside finisher, a carpenter. Likely due to failing eyesight, he retired in 1933. His final time card is stamped, “non-pensionable service.” At the height of the Great Depression, he had no work, no pension, no health care, no Social Security. Throughout the remainder of his days, there was practically no money to support his family and two young children — including my dad. After he died in 1945, there was absolutely no money.

My dad’s lifeline out of poverty was to join the Navy. Uncle Sam trained him to be a mechanic. My dad sailed halfway around the world to serve in battle during the Korean War. Upon his discharge, he returned to south suburban Chicago and eventually landed a job as an electrician with Illinois Bell Telephone. He met a fellow Ma Bell employee and they married. They both joined the union, a privilege denied to my dad’s dad. They worked hard. They saved. They raised two kids. When they retired after decades of faithful service to the company, they received a pension and Social Security. Their health care was covered for life. As retirees, they split their time between one “candominium” (mobile home) in coastal Florida and another candominium in south suburban Illinois.

My mom died suddenly in October 2021. My dad hasn’t been the same since. Throughout his life, he was one of those guys who never got sick. Well into his 80s, he never took anything more than an occasional aspirin. Until the first major medical issue arose. The first chink in the armor. And then the next. And the next.

Last year, when my dad — plagued by an escalating number of health issues — entered an assisted living facility, I would return every few months to visit him. Each time, I would be shocked to see how much more compromised he had become. On one of my return trips to see my dad, I visited the Midewin witness tree and was equally shocked to see the tree significantly losing its leaves.

Midewin Witness Tree, 2022

Bur oaks are known for their strength and longevity. However, they are not immune to time and disease. The witness tree oak is about 330 years old, the very upper end of the typical age range for bur oaks. As such, it is more susceptible to the likes of Bur Oak Blight, a pathological new comer, which defoliates the trees. Repeated defoliation renders bur oaks more susceptible to other indignities, including the two-lined chestnut borer and Armillaria root rot, which — according to the Morton Arboretum — “ultimately cause tree decline and death.”

This week, I returned to help my sister navigate my dad through the next serious health threat, for which there is no cure — only a limited range of palliative band-aids.

I stopped by Midewin to check in on the witness tree, as well, and was shocked to find the tree nearly leafless.

Midewin Witness Tree, 2023

My dad is a mighty oak. In his prime, his forearms were as thick and sinewy as cordwood. They actually frightened me for their strength. At 93, he is at the upper end of his age range. His hair is thin, his limbs weak, even his bark has lost its bite. As his son, let me bear witness. Let me bear witness.

12 thoughts on “A Mighty Oak”

  1. I honor your father’s memory and that of his father who came from nothing. Your father and mother’s strength gave you a wonderful education and foundation for your intelligence, wit and humor. I am privileged to have witnessed the Pearson family almost my entire life. God speed for your dad.

  2. Arthur. Those of us who know you enjoy a man with unusual capabilities. Thank you for your special ability to express love and empathy, in words and in your own life. You have now revealed one likely source for this strength. I see what you witness. David

    1. Thank you, David. In your response, as in my experience of you, you reveal yourself as a man of your own exceptional capabilities and strengths. Thank you for being a witness. Love to you and Annie.

  3. From the acorn grows the oak…Sharing healing thoughts and courage as you travel your Dad’s journey together. Thank you for sharing these very moving words, Arthur. Peace, Sue

  4. Arthur, I read this without having met your dad, a story we might be tempted to view as “well, typical of his generation, isn’t it?”. But that is an attitude that does injustice to the strength of character of those remarkable individuals who took responsibility, who worked hard for their families, their legacy to come. And this beautiful paean bears witness to his struggle and his success. “Attention must be paid!” another Arthur once wrote; you have done the same with these words.
    Wishing you peace, old friend.

    1. Thanks, Rick. You quoted my favorite line from any play, “Attention must be paid.” Your message spurred me to explore what The Bard had to say on the topic of attention: “The tongues of dying men enforce attention like deep harmony.” Add to this, Simone Weil’s, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer” and there you have it. We’re all dying, of course. For the short time we’re here, therefore, paying attention seems a worthy endeavor. Peace to you and your family, dear old friend, indeed.

  5. I am very often at Midewin, in spurts over the years but much more this past year. This early summer/late spring when I first noticed how The Witness did not “spring” back; it broke me in a way I cannot describe. They are not even mowing the path to the tree these days but I feel they should so we could easily pay our respects to this glorious life. I speak to The Witness each time I pass by, probably several times a week.

    The Witness is one of my favorite places at the whole of Midewin (which is saying a lot) and when it finally is gone I feel that some of the spirit of Midewin will also be gone, especially of that South Patrol area. Much like the spirit of a parent when they leave their children’s lives to enter the next realm. The prairie will become an orphan of sorts much like we humans do when our parents are no longer by our sides.

    On a more sensible but yet spiritual level I wonder if the intentional deforestation of the area to return it to prairie has messed with the mycelium system as well as The Witness’ roots/nutrient system. One has to wonder if restoration is truly for the good of all that live at Midewin. I cognitively understand it but spiritually I am bothered a bit. The sacrifice is real and is a daily struggle there.

    1. Hi, Marianne. Thanks for sharing about your own deep connection to Midewin. True to its Pottawatomie name, meaning “healing society,” Midewin is a place of great spiritual power. In regards to your technical questions about the impacts of restoration, I am not a trained ecologist. But I know enough of the site’s history to know that historically groves of oaks flourished in the midst of the vast prairie sea. Once settlement began in earnest in 1836, the prairie lands — including those surrounding our witness tree — first were pastured then rowcropped, during which time our witness tree continued to flourish. During the Arsenal years, the farmed land continued to be farmed as buffer to the arsenal operations. Following the closure of the Arsenal, the untended hedgerows in the farmed land went feral, and many “volunteer” tree sprung up — mostly cottonwoods and the like. Following the establishment of Midewin in 1996, South Patrol Road Prairie, adjacent to our witness tree was the first major area to undergo restoration back to prairie. Through it all, our witness tree flourished. I don’t know what ultimately caused the demise of our witness tree, but certainly it was at the upper end of its age range. If I learn anything more, I’ll let you know.

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