Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Visiting an old friend

This tree has been around, judging from its girth, somewhere between 200 and 300 years. It's a Bur Oak or, Quercus macrocarpa if you want to be specific. It gets the name from its fringed, crowned seed, the largest of all North American acorns, hence macrocarpa, Latin for big seed. The tree produces acorns sporadically, usually every other year. This year looked to be a bumper crop.

Bur oaks are often found on the crests of ridges near waterways, as this one is, along the North Branch of the Chicago River in the neighborhood of Edgebrook. They also typically form the dividing point between wooded areas and the prairie, which is also the case with this tree. Except here the prairie is a big open field in the middle of a residential neighborhood that fronts the woods that surround the river.

The Bur Oak is slow growing, most of its early stages are devoted to the development of the root system. It is both fire and drought resistant which accounts for its longevity as it is able to survive the annual prairie fires that once claimed most of its neighbors.

I came across this magnificent tree eleven years ago while working on a project documenting the Chicago River. While I could have stood back far enough to fill one frame with the tree, I knew I had to get up close to photograph it this way, twelve times, looking straight at the trunk, down at the ground, up into the branches, to the right into the woods and to the left left into the prairie. Looking at the picture when it is printed big, you are embraced by the tree, almost as you are in real life.

In those eleven years I've come back many times, sometimes to photograph, some times just to visit. This picture from an earlier post, was made in the summer of 2002. My son who was not yet born when I first encountered the tree, was with me. I used for the first time a camera that once belonged to my dear friend, the photographer John Mahtesian, who had recently passed away. When the picture hung for a while in the lobby of the Park Hyatt Hotel on North Michigan Avenue, I asked them to make a plaque, dedicating the picture to him.

A few weeks ago I returned to make what would be the first autumn picture with leaves both on the tree and on the ground. Two years ago I was a little too late and the leaves had all fallen. That time I brought both my son and my daughter who herself was not born the previous time I photographed the tree. This time however, I was alone, as both kids were at school. Time marches on.

Whenever I visit after a long absence, I always dread that all may not be well, this tree is after all pushing the edge of its life span. Even great oak trees don't last forever.

Well here it stood proud and magnificent as ever. My old friend.

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