Keep Watch for Wolves

Have you seen a wolf in Easton?  I bet you have. I don’t mean the furry kind along with the bobcats and bears we occasionally catch on our Ring cameras.  The wolf I have in mind is really a type of tree. Even though they are rare, there are quite a few here in Easton.  The term wolf tree does not refer to any one species but rather it is a designation based on age and traits.  You’ll know when you see one because their immense proportions and stature are breathtaking.  Their large diameter trunks are covered in coarse bark, and they are often twisted with crevices, hollows, and damaged limbs. These veteran giants have stood for centuries on the fringes of pastures, and they are often located along stone walls and roads.  As in other areas of our country, agrarian deforestation clear cut much of the woods to make way for crops in the 18th and 19th centuries.  A few trees, often oaks, were left on the margins of these spaces.  It is thought that they are nicknamed wolf trees for their solitary existence much like this animal’s reputation. Sometimes they are also called witness trees and that may be due to their use as historic reference points for mapping and property records. 

Cleared pastures with shade trees in a view of Newtown, Connecticut. Fields are delineated by fences and stone walls. This image from John Warner Barber’s Connecticut Historical Collection gives a good sense of how older trees survived deforestation. Incidentally, Barber’s book is the source of the earliest images of our Congregational Church in 1836.

In their youth, their broad branches spread out with the lack of competition from other trees and provided lovely shade for animals and workers from the fields. As our economy changed over the past two centuries from agricultural to industrial, open meadows returned to forest. Younger saplings grew around them with straight, upright branches as they attempted to reach the light above the older tree’s canopy.  You can see examples of some of these old trees today along our reservoir district as well as on Aspetuck Land Trust trails where several species well over two hundred years old are surrounded by younger trees.   

Old American Beech Tree, Aspetuck Land Trust. Beech trees are slow growing but can live up to 400 years reaching a height of 80 feet .

Of course, these old giants are also interspersed around our properties and many of you may be the caretaker of one or more.  An old maple just off my lot was already a colossus in 1934 from the looks of the historic aerial photographs preserved in UCONN archives. At that time, there were barely any trees on that stretch of Silver Hill besides this lone wolf.  The eponymous Twin Oaks in front of Ida Tarbell’s homestead on Valley Street are my favorite in town with their enormous boughs arching low across the ground.  They predate her home which was built in 1790 by Eliphelet Bradley.  I guess you could consider them our town’s twin wolves.

Easton’s Twin Oaks, Ida Tarbell House, north view on Valley Road, photo E. Boyce, 2022.

By far the most famous of all these town elders would be the Old Oak on its namesake road in front of the Isaac Bennett house that was built in 1730.  This white oak is listed in the Connecticut Notable Trees database and was featured in the 1934 Trees of Note in Connecticut by Katharine Matthies.  Back then it was already estimated to be 300 years old and experts now consider it to be somewhere between 400 and 450 years of age.  Generations of town residents have recognized the significance of this tree with periodic measurements of its girth which at the last official recording came in at 222 inches-a massive 18 ½ feet!  

“Ye Old Oak” image from Helen Partridge and Francis Mellen’s Easton-It’s History, 1972.

Despite the signage often seen in older photographs with the date of 1690, it is likely this tree started its life decades earlier. It could have been alive when the Connecticut Colony was first founded in 1636 and it was certainly a youngster when Old Oak Road was just a foot path through Pauggussett land.  It even survived the ax of early Fairfield settlers. Local lore records how a central section of its trunk was removed early on in the 18th  century to provide wood for a harrow.  

Left: Early farming image from Easton-It’s History, 1972. Right: An example of an 18th century wood harrow which may have been similar to the tool made from Easton’s Old Oak wood.

Essentially, this was a heavy log with spikes or tines that was pulled by draft animals in order to break clods of earth and smooth the ground for planting.  It has been suggested that this early pruning caused the wide spread of the Old Oak’s branches over the subsequent centuries. The tree also functioned as an early hitching post as two iron hooks are said to be buried within its thick layers of bark.

Trunk of the Old Oak, Easton, Connecticut. Photo credit Marty Aligata, Connecticut Notable Trees database.

As the centuries passed, all around this gentle giant farmland was planted, families were raised, homes built and parishes formed.  By 1787 Weston was established and in turn, this land became Easton in 1845.  And amazingly, this tree is still with us! What a witness to history!

Views of the Isaac Bennett House with Easton’s Old Oak. The two images on the left are dated to 1934 and are attributed to Mrs. J. Arthur Sherwood. (DAR Collection) The top right image is from WPA architectural studies (1935-1943) while the lower right is a recent view from Google Earth.

Today, many of these old wolves are coming to the end of their lives.  In some cases, particularly in wooded areas, younger trees are now towering alongside them and winning in the struggle for resources.  Disease, storm damage and of course, the constant threat of development compromises their environment and threatens their existence.  

Easton’s Twin Oaks, Ida Tarbell House, south view on Valley Road, photo V. Boyce, 2022.

Those located in our residential areas do pose safety concerns with the threat of falling limbs from their lofty canopies.  As a forestry term, widow-maker certainly comes to mind when you consider the propensity for these old trees to drop material without warning. There are however, ways we can mitigate the dangers.  Some in town may not be aware that Easton has had a tree warden as early as 1936 when Charles Keller held the post.  Today the responsibility rests with a committee that reviews the care and disposition of all town trees that may affect the public welfare.  If one of these landmarks resides on your property, consider consulting a professional arborist for guidance and provide a root protection zone where you can minimize traffic and avoid fertilizers and pesticides near its base and trunk.  

Not all efforts to save these trees will be successful.  In 1972, an ancient ash on the grounds of Notre Dame’s rectory on Morehouse Road was condemned.  Although no one was quite sure just how old it was, it was estimated to be over 200 years of age and it was 17 feet in circumference.  The Historical Society worked with town officials, church leaders and other non-profit organizations to gather funds and consult tree experts in the hope of saving it through careful pruning and feeding.  Ultimately, failing health caused it to be removed but their efforts to save it brought residents together for a common cause and raised awareness of those heirloom trees that still remain.

The Old Oak, Easton, Connecticut. Photo credit Marty Aligata, Connecticut Notable Trees database, 2011.

Even in their twilight, these longstanding members of our community have so much to offer.  Their often-gnarled silhouettes and broad leaf cover serve as keystone structures in their surrounding environment.  They provide shelter to all sorts of insects, birds and animals and as prolific seed producers, they supply abundant food for wildlife. Importantly, they also pass on rare hereditary features vital to the biodiversity of our local forests. Having survived countless generations and environmental changes, part of their legacy is their genetic resiliency which will be critically important as climate change has increased tree mortality around the world. 
So take an extra moment to admire these beautiful trees as we go about our busy days and let’s be mindful of ways in which we can best care for them.  Their survival provides a powerful link both to our heritage and to our future.

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