BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The majestic white oak tree that has been Basking Ridge's primary landmark since before the town was even established in 1760 has died this summer. The Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church must now address how to cut back the limbs of the 600-year-old giant for safety's sake, and at the same time preserve the beloved tree's dignity, said Rev. Dennis Jones.

Jones said recently that the Presbyterian Church's Board of Trustees would meet this month to determine what the next steps will be for the tree's future. He said safety is a major concern - the huge tree stands close to the historic church building and spreads over a sidewalk through which many people enter the building.

Earlier in the spring, leaves had pushed out on some of the branches, while others were barren. The tree was not covered in the usual springtime greenery at the township's Charter Day celebration this past May.

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Late in August, following a summer in which the tree was carefully watered, nurtured, and monitored, experts closely examined and took samples to determine how much, if any, of the tree was still viable. The news was not good, said Jones, the church's pastor, who also grew up in town.

"It is sad to say that the hope we all had for our Oak tree's future has not materialized," Jones said in a newsletter to the church's parishioners earlier this month. "The events of this summer have overpowered the internal mechanisms that healthy trees utilize to withstand the intense heat of summer. Our best focus now is to insure the safety of the area around the tree."

By the end of summer, the tree standing in the churchyard in the center of Basking Ridge, surrounded by grave markers that include those of Revolutionary War soldiers, had turned completely brown, as had any remaining leaves.

Pruning of dead limbs 

Jones said in the newsletter that the next stages of care for the tree will include pruning of dead limbs in the outer portions of the tree while retaining the structure supported by the cabling system stabilizing the main branches. 

"The trustees will be evaluating possible next steps over the next few weeks," he said at that time. 

Despite, the poor show of leaves earlier in the summer. many were hopeful. The tree had survived droughts and injury. In the 1920s, following the best advice at the time, rot had been cleaned out of the much of the trunk, and filled it in with concrete, said Jon Klippel, who serves on the church's planning council. Cabling was also put up around that time. A huge crutch was installed to support one of the heaviest of the snaking branches, only adding to the tree's appeal as being venerable, if aged. 

"We were hoping the tree would shed brown leaves, and then push out green leaves," Klippel said.

Toward the end of July, the leaves on the lower branches started to turn brown, Jones said in the church newsletter. Leaf samples were sent to Rutgers University for analysis; the results turned up negative for pathogens or insects, according to the church, which then authorized Keiling Tree and Historical Tree Care to make a detailed aerial examination of the tree looking for any potential signs of life throughout the tree.

Jones agreed around Labor Day that the tree is dead. The pastor added that the sad but simple truth seems to be that the tree has succumbed to age.

The town must also deal with the loss of the tree that has been a constant in the lives of residents.

Throughout Basking Ridge, the names of streets, the Oak Street School, the Bernards municipal seal all reflect the presence of a living piece of history that also has been portrayed innumerable times in local paintings and photography.

One of the oldest stories of the tree is that George Washington rested under its branches. Klippel says the tree was a landmark on even earlier maps.

During droughts in the 1950s and 1960s, the fire department poured water onto the trees roots even when lawn watering was banned through the rest of the town, Klippel said. The tree was a meeting place, a place for a late night stroll, and - so it seemed - ceaseless testimony to the change of the seasons.

The tree has played a major role in such community events as the annual Christmas Eve singalong held each year in the town center for more than 90 years. It stood by as a symbol of strength when the community gathered nearby for a candlelight vigil following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that killed more than 20 township residents, and brushed the lives of many more.

How the tree will look in the future has yet to be determined.

The conclusion of Keiling's examination is that the "tree has declined to the point where the best hope is for the lower trunk to make sprouts next year," Jones said in the church newsletter.