WYE MILLS - For the first time in more than 400 summers, June sunlight recaptured the grassy plot, shaded so many summers by the ancient tree.
Severed from its roots, the Wye Oak swung horizontally from a giant house mover's crane. Its mighty boughs, sawn to stubs, extended like fins and flukes from the mammoth carcass.
It recalled a great whale that washed up on an Atlantic beach a few years ago, retaining an improbable dignity even in death.
Sawdust and sap perfumed the air as mourners streamed up the blocked-off country road to where a thunderstorm two nights before had felled the national champion white oak.
To allay souvenir hunters, state foresters had set out tubs of twigs and leaves for the taking. These were being auctioned on eBay, an onlooker said.
"If oak is the king of trees, then the white oak is the king of kings," wrote Donald Culross Peattie in his 1948 classic, Natural History of Trees.
Though white pine warped less, though hickory was more resilient and ironwood stronger, nothing had more all-round utility and durability than the white oak, the author explained.
While tulip poplars can grow taller, and the sycamore can achieve greater girth, "no other tree in our sylva has so great a spread. ... The mighty branches leave the trunk nearly at right angles and extend their arms benignantly above the generations of men who pass beneath them."
It was those great arms, kept artificially together in recent decades by thousands of feet of cable, that finished the old oak the evening of June 6, 2002.
Surely in its estimated 460 years the Wye Brobdingnag withstood worse than the storms, with winds to 70 mph, that prowled the Eastern Shore. But its hollow trunk, itself held together with concrete, no longer could take the pressure on that massive crown of leaves and limbs.
If we kept our champion on life support past its natural time, who could blame us? "Through a tree, we tie our soil to the heavens," a forester once wrote.
The Wye Oak was that and more, symbolizing endurance and grandeur, at once humbling and inspiriting - and good for tourism, of course. None of us wanted it to end on our watch.
A larger problem is that in modern Maryland we are getting down to where symbols are all we've got.
The same day's issue of The Sun that noted the Wye Oak's passing also featured the extraordinary measures being taken to preserve the last few of more than a thousand skipjacks that once dredged the bay for oysters. The skipjack is our state boat, as the white oak is our state tree.
Preserving skipjacks is as laudable as was preserving the Wye Oak. But symbols ultimately ring hollow as the old oak's trunk if we don't preserve the greater communities, the oyster reefs that once filtered and cleansed the bay, and supported seafood harvesting communities. Oysters are down to a couple percent of their historic populations.
Similarly, no tree endures forever - only the forest can do that. During the past 20 years, we continued to lose the region's forests, not just acreage, but quality - especially the qualities of the never-cut, old-growth forest, of which no more than a few hundred acres remain in Maryland.
An old tree can be a wonderful symbol, but an old forest can teach us about coexisting with the planet. Forests are what the land in these regions, if left to its own devices, most wants to speak about - a conclusion I draw from the fact that forests have cloaked most of the Eastern landscape, most of the time, for millions of years.
As Chris Bolgiano writes in The Great Forest, of 400-year-old white oaks growing on an Appalachian ridge, shaped by incessant winds so they "ripple sideways like braided hair undone. ... These living sculptures are the most perfect biological expression of which this ridge is capable."
Research where substantial old growth remains, in the Smokies and Adirondacks, is documenting a richness and diversity of life, qualities of timber and soils, and sheer beauty that are all simply on a higher plane than what we think forests capable of.
We might yet restore the community of oysters. It may be too late for the ancient white oak forest that covered parts of the bay watershed.
But maybe we could make our symbolic oaks serve better. Let's all hail a new champion - and when its time comes, let's let it rot.
Let's watch it drop limb after limb, becoming finally a dead snag, a perch for ospreys and eagles, hawks and owls, and den for black bear and raccoons.
Let's let it molder and crumble, nourishing ants and mushrooms, lichens and salamanders. Let's let its nutrients replenish the soil from which it sprang, rearing another white oak seedling.