Mourning Mocksville’s Mighty Oaks

Published 9:33 am Thursday, November 12, 2015

The first sign of mortality was a year ago when a massive limb fell from one of Downtown Mocksville’s four oaks early one morning. Fortunately, nobody was underneath to be crushed.

An arborist found last week that two of the four willow oaks were dangerously diseased. One was felled on Friday. A weekend rain spared another for a few days. The woodsmen cut another one down on Tuesday.

Heart pains were felt across town as the first oak went under the saw. Motorists and spectators got to see the fascinating surgery in progress.

Those mighty oaks — planted before the World War II years — have been the town’s pride. On their spreading branches have been hung Christmas lights every season. Parades have marched past. Veterans have been honored at the nearby monument. Stores have cribbed on to the “Four Oaks” theme.

Soon there will be only two.

Some spoke of the cutting in hushed tones as a death in the family. One person wished to stay the ax through one more Christmas so the lights could hang beautifully one last time, and we could treasure the memory.

Town manager Christine Brailey and soon-to-retire Mayor Francis Slate made the difficult but necessary decision to cut the trees. The critical issue was the safety of pedestrians and motorists in downtown.

For Mayor Slate, 93, the decision had to be painful. He arrived in Mocksville as a young surgeon in 1958 when the trees were just getting some size about them. His long  and productive tenure as mayor will come to an end next month.

Like us, trees don’t live forever. Willow oaks don’t have the lifespan of giant redwoods. The Town of Mocksville has kept close watch on the health of the trees over the years, pruning and monitoring them. But even the best of health care can’t stay our eventual mortality.

Mocksville now faces the decision about what to do now. Plant anew? Plant smaller maples? The other two trees likely don’t have much time left before disease claims them. Having two oaks on diagonal sides of the town square will be require a mental adjustment for townsfolk. Mocksville’s arborist said it’s difficult for such large trees to grow and survive while surrounded by concrete and asphalt. Entwined with the roots are various utilities.

Those trees have been remarkable old friends — symbols of Mocksville.  It was hard to see the first one come down.

When I took my second son to college in Norman, Okla., I heard the story of the first president of the new University of Oklahoma, David Ross Boyd, who stepped off the train to a barren, wind-swept prairie town in 1888 and declared, “What possibilities!” There wasn’t a tree in sight. In his first 18 months on the job, he planted 10,000 trees, purchased with his own money. There are trees all over Norman now.

Cutting two of the mighty oaks is a significant loss of beauty for Downtown Mocksville. But, as the college president said, “What possibilities!”

Soon it will be time to plant anew. Planting trees is an act of faith in our future.

— Dwight Sparks