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Oakmont says goodbye to venerable oak tree

A light rain fell February 3 as members of the Oakmont Outdoor School community gathered for a touching memorial service. It was not a student or staff member being mourned but instead a towering oak tree that had served as a centerpiece of the campus for decades.

The previous Monday, the district informed Oakmont Principal Jenny Adams and her staff that the tree had to go. The news was expected as the tree, which was about 50 years old, had been doing poorly.

“I’ve got some news about our oak tree. Our tree has been sick for several years.  It’s very old. The last time the tree doctor came out, he said it’s just not strong enough to keep standing. It’s sad but it’s just like everything else—it’s the circle of life,” Ms. Adams told the assembled students and staff. District luminaries Superintendent Jim Elsasser and Superintendent of Human Services Kevin Ward were also on-hand for the late-morning farewell ceremony.

Max Taylor, 9, was up next, reading a haiku he had written. “A tree is very great. The breeze says, ‘I love you so.’ You are the best thing.”

With the sprinkling continuing, students pulled up their hoods and a few staff members opened umbrellas as Ms. Adams next took some time to read the classic children’s book The Giving Tree.

Published in 1964 and written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree tells the story of a tree that’s loved by a little boy.

As he grows up, he finds less and less time to sit and talk to her, climb her trunk, swing in her branches and eat her apples. The tree, however, remains a steadfast friend, offering first her apples, then her branches and finally her trunk so the now grownup boy can do grownup things like selling fruit, building a house and crafting a boat. Each time she serves the now grownup boy, we’re told, “And the tree was happy.”

When the boy, now an old man, eventually returns to the tree, she tells him she has nothing left to give as all that remains of her past grandeur is a stump. That’s not a problem, he tells her, as he’s now to old to climb her trunk, swing in her branches or crunch into her apples. He’s tired and needs only a place to rest. When he takes a seat on the stump, the tree is happy once more.

“As we honor the tree, I encourage you to be thinking about the Giving Tree. What can you give to make the world better?” Ms. Adams posed.

The bittersweet tale is deep stuff for readers of any age, but so is losing an old friend.

“It makes me want to cry because nature is part of you. Nature is great,” 10-year-old Mia Aldape said.

At Oakmont’s lofty oak has, indeed, been a good friend to everyone on campus. It has beautified the site and provided shade to generations of students.

At the height of the drought, a retaining wall made of stones circling the tree was built. It was a favorite spot for students to set, below a canopy of branches and leaves, and eat their lunches. The circle is now empty, with the oak having been removed the Saturday after the memorial service.

“I didn’t realize how enormous that tree was. The space now where the circular wall was around, that seems huge. I’m so used to the big canopy of the tree and now it seems so bright in my office,” Oakmont office manger Rosie Bister said. 

“Working with the district, it really has been a grief process,” she continued. “When you watched kids sit out there, something about them just all being together under that tree, eating lunch and making friends, it just felt like an umbrella over the students that brought them all together.”

It all comes back to the circle of life.

The tree has since been converted to mulch and the district is planning to replace the oak with another tree. They just have to find the right spot for a sapling to thrive. As for the lost shade, it will be replaced with a canopy. A proposal for the structure has already been submitted to the state, according to Service Center Director Rick Cota.

In addition, the oak tree will be immortalized in a mural to be designed by Oakmont parent Cristina Marroquin. While they will miss the centerpiece of Oakmont’s leaf-scape, students said they were glad to have a chance to give the tree a proper send-off. 

“It was emotional. It was happy and sad, and it was a good way to say goodbye,” 9-year-old Isabella Stoner-Villegas added.

“It was a great tree ceremony. It was a great way to celebrate our tree that’s been here for over 50 years,” 9-year-old Alexandra Aceytuno added. 

Fourth and fifth grade teacher Imetra Joiner hasn’t been around that long but she has taught at the school for 29 years. It’s long enough that she has formed fond and lasting memories of the fallen oak.

“You get used to the shape of the tree. The squirrels would climb the tree and acorns would fall from the tree—there would be a regular percussion,” she said.  “That’s just like Claremont, to honor a tree.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com