She knew America existed before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. She survived conflicts — the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, both World Wars.
She was standing before New Jersey became one of the 13 original colonies. Legend says she provided shade to John Fenwick, who founded Salem, in the 17th century when he met with the Lenni Lenape and signed a peace treaty.
She sauntered her fall foliage for Charles A. Lindbergh, who flew over her in 1927 as he zipped from Atlantic City to Wilmington. She even withstood Hurricane Sandy, which pummeled the state in 2012. And she served as a landmark, a playground, and a comfort to residents driving past, kids running around, and people mourning loved ones buried nearby.
So when she finally fell on a Thursday night in June, in her town that didn’t exist at the time she was born, surrounded by her children grown from seedlings planted nearby, people in the community felt as if they had lost part of their identity.
This plot where the Salem Oak once stood is empty for the first time in centuries. For the five months since her death, that monumental void has not been filled. But the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has an idea to honor her.
Foresters in the department previously collected acorns from her majestic base. From them, nearly 1,200 seedlings sprouted. They protected these delicate lives, transferring them to tubes and then tending to them at the New Jersey Forest Nursery Jackson Township greenhouse.
This week, the department announced that these seedlings would be shipped to all of the state’s 565 municipalities, to be planted, and hopefully, flourish for hundreds of years. By coincidence, the mother tree was an estimated 565 years old.
They will distribute the seedlings on April 22, 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
Each seedling will be paired with a certificate of authenticity to show “its heritage as the progeny of the Salem Oak,” and there will be a website for people to share details of the plantings.
“Generations of New Jerseyans will reap the benefits of this extraordinary planting,” DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe said in a video showing her checking in on the seedlings at the greenhouse. “Fifty years from now, people will know that our shared commitment to protecting and respecting our environment ran as deep as the roots of the mighty Salem Oak.”
If the age estimate is correct, she exceeded the average life expectancy of her species, Quercus alba, by 265 years.
The cause of her demise was “stem failure,” Preston Carpenter, a member of the Religious Society of Friends in Salem, previously told The Inquirer.
“The oak is Salem,” B. Harold Smick Jr., then president of the Salem County Historical Society, told The Inquirer in 1973. “When a storm blows up, everybody is concerned about the tree.”
On the news of her death, community members cried. A traditional Quaker service was held where those mourning could share memories of the glorious oak. Salem Friends Meeting member Jessica Waddington penned an emotional obituary.
“She had battled time, gravity, and Mother Nature for several hundred years, losing several limbs and requiring a great deal of care, before finally succumbing,” Waddington wrote. “She was surrounded by her descendants, the town that loved her, and a few hundred deceased Friends, all of whom benefited from her stately bearing, her ongoing endurance, and her deep roots that preceded not only the birth of this nation, but the European settlement of its lands.”