The king is dead. Long live the king.
As mourners filed by the remains of the venerable Wye Oak, felled by a violent thunderstorm Thursday afternoon, state forestry officials declared a Harford County tree yesterday to be the largest surviving white oak in Maryland.
The 102-foot giant, inhabited by a tangle of blacksnakes, stands on a farm near Norrisville. It is more than nine feet smaller in girth than the Wye Oak, and 36 feet narrower at the crown.
But forestry officials who fanned out yesterday to re-measure the three top contenders for the crown - in Harford, Talbot and Calvert counties - had no doubt about the results.
"We have a new champion," said Maureen Brooks, who coordinates the Big Tree Program for the state Forestry Service.
The huge tree, troubled by rot and a crack frequented by snakes, honeybees, raccoons and opossums, is the property of Katherine Aldrich Adams. A native Californian, she bought the 19-acre "Honeybee Hollow" farm three years ago.
"It's great to watch out the window, and watch what's going on," she said. The tree stands just 25 feet from her 1820s frame farmhouse. She fertilizes it some, she said, but can't afford to have its dead wood pruned.
"The way it leans [away from the house] I don't have to worry," she said. Nonetheless, she confessed, "sometimes I think I hear it cracking in my sleep."
News of her tree's new title didn't surprise her. The previous owner had told her the tree was one of the state's largest white oaks. But she was surprised when forestry officials showed up with measuring instruments less than 24 hours after the Wye Oak's demise.
"I didn't expect people to react so fast," said Adams, who was weeding her flowerbeds when they arrived.
"I'd rather not have the attention, but it's still fun to know your tree's No. 1," she said.
She asked that her address not be published.
Her tree fended off challenges from an oak in Easton that had lost 16 feet of height since its last measurement, and a 96-foot tree in Dunkirk, Calvert County, that was mistakenly measured two years ago at an implausible 158 feet tall.
In addition to being the biggest white oak in Maryland, the 460-year-old Wye Oak was also the largest tree of any species in the state.
With its passing, Brooks said, the title of biggest Maryland tree goes to the State Champion tulip poplar, a 105-foot giant in Prince Frederick, Calvert County. The old poplar is 28 feet, 8 inches in circumference, with a 79-foot crown, she said.
In Wye Mills, yesterday, cars lined both sides of Route 662 as mourners made their way past the post office, the Wye Mills Market and the historic Wye Grist Mill to pay their respects to the fallen tree.
"We just came to say goodbye to our old friend who we've watched over the years," said Lynn Spinner of Denton. She picked up a piece of Wye Oak bark and a small clutch of leaves as souvenirs. "There are not too many living historical monuments."
"It's like losing a huge giant," said Spinner's mother, Dixie Bitters of Abingdon. "It really hurts to see it being cut up, you can feel the pain."
Others recalled picnics under the tree's protective canopy, childhood field trips and acorn-collecting expeditions.
"My grandmother brought me here as a small boy, and we collected acorns and took them back and planted them on her farm in Cecil County," said Hannibal Lee, of Nanticoke. An artist, he said he drove 90 miles when he heard the news on the radio, hoping to pick up some bark and leaves for his work.
"I just had to get here," he said. "It was like losing a family member."
Crews from the state Department of Natural Resources were busy collecting bud wood for future cloning efforts, and sorting leaves, stems and wood - relics to be stored for uses not yet determined.
Overseeing much of the tree's dismantling was M. Stark McLaughlin, a DNR forester who has watched over the old oak for 28 years.
"It's tough, it's tough," he said, watching salvage crews work. "It's sadder by the moment because it gets more skeletonized."
McLaughlin said the thunderstorm's strong winds, which he said gusted up to 70 mph, were responsible for toppling the tree. Since the 1940s, he said, foresters have shored up the oak with five miles of cables.
"The tree basically imploded and fell in on itself," McLaughlin said. "We found no evidence of lightning damage."
Assistant DNR secretary Carolyn V. Watson said yesterday that tree parts will be stored at Tuckahoe State Park and at the DNR's state nursery, both on the Eastern Shore. The DNR is also looking for a larger site to store the tree's trunk section.
"From leaves, to rotten pieces of wood to big limbs, there's not a piece of this tree that is trash," Watson said. "We want ideas coming in from schools and artists to advise us as to how to utilize every piece of this tree."
When the Wye Oak fell Thursday, a search also began for the great tree's successor as National Champion - the largest white oak in the nation.