Claiming a piece of the Wye

Tree: Marylanders claim remnants of the once-mighty oak for artistic and sentimental reasons.

May 23, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

PRESTON -- The Wye Oak, long regarded as the nation's tallest white oak tree, is about to be turned into a desk. And a vase. And a mobile. And a picture frame. And dolls.

And whatever else may sprout from the imaginations of the 250 or so Marylanders who showed up yesterday and last week at a state nursery in Caroline County to claim many of the 15,000 pieces of the Maryland landmark that toppled June 6, 2002, in a thunderstorm. The white oak had stood for an estimated 460 years in the Eastern Shore village of Wye Mills, about 30 miles away.

Yesterday was the first day for the general public to claim the tree's remnants, which were laid out across two acres of sunny, green fields like matchsticks that had fallen on a floor. Artists had the first shot at the wood on May 15, a week before everybody else.

Some people came yesterday because they were curious to see what the fallen giant looked like in its afterlife. Others wanted keepsakes large and small of a natural wonder.

"I cried when it fell," said Fran Peters, 76, a self-described "nature lover" from Grasonville who carried away an armful of branches and twigs.

She cried again yesterday, recounting her affection for the tree, which she said she had visited for many years. "There's still spirit in that wood," she said.

The state Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland State Arts Council, which collaborated on the giveaway, placed no limit on the number of limbs that could be hauled off, and they didn't charge a fee. Collectors were given a certificate authenticating the pieces and noting that the tree had been the national champion white oak since the listings began in 1940.

Many who arrived were artists and sculptors thrilled at the opportunity to incorporate pieces of history into their creations.

Artists who showed up last weekend to get prime wood pieces were required to sign a contract with the state agreeing to turn the salvage into artwork "or else we get the wood back," said Daniel Rider, an associate director with the Forest Service, part of DNR.

In a year, the state has the option of using the artistic creations in a Wye Oak exhibit. The artists are to send in a photo in six months demonstrating their progress.

The artists began arriving last week about two hours before the giveaway started. "When it began, it was like the Oklahoma land rush," said Joe Muir, a technician at the state-run tree nursery where the wood was stored. "People were really running."

The state signed 142 contracts with artists for the wood. Some carted away pieces as long as 25 feet. Most -- but not all -- of the pieces remaining yesterday were far smaller.

Some of the artists came back for more yesterday, where they joined up to 100 other people from around the state. Among them was Tita Rutledge, who owns a Baltimore costume shop and said she intends to carve the wood into dolls and place them in historical dress. "I might do some Renaissance costumes" reminiscent of the era in which the tree was born, she said.

She and her friend, artist Beppi Isbert, also of Baltimore, drove away with a 4-foot-long branch, among others, in Isbert's minivan.

Rider said DNR might end up with hundreds of leftover branches and twigs whose fate has not yet been decided. In February, Maryland counties collected a number of pieces to make gavels or other items. A chunk of the tree is also being used to make a desk for the governor's office.

The tree had stood 96 feet tall and nearly 32 feet in girth. It had been held up with the aid of wires.

Its main trunk, or "bole," is being stored in a Kent Island warehouse. The plan is to one day return it to Wye Mills, stand it back up "and build a pavilion over the top of it to protect it," Rider said.

Rider said the tree, even in fragments, is unique.

"It has wood grain like no other," he said, pointing to intricate swirls on a piece of gray bark. "Look at that. You won't find that at Home Depot."

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