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Second life for ancient oak trees

April 22, 2003 By John Lucas

In 1859, the hillside now known as Muir Woods was an open oak savannah, with stands of red and white oak trees mixed in with the prairie that descended to the Lake Mendota shore.

UW–Madison was a mere decade old then, consisting of a handful of buildings on the far side of the hill. Sometime during the spring of that year, an acorn sprouted on the hillside and, as the years went on, grew to become a towering red oak.

Fast forward 143 years, to fall 2002. In the woods behind the Social Sciences building, the same red oak tree had reached the end of its life, its branches bereft of leaves. Looking at the tree — afflicted by a fungus called oak wilt — and two older oaks dying nearby, Daniel Einstein decided that he would find a way to save the “history in the wood.”

Einstein, campus environmental management coordinator and arborist, enlisted Bjorn Karlsson, an associate researcher in horticulture who runs Urban Forest Furniture, a small business that salvages dying historic trees for reuse as custom furniture projects.

It was decided that the Muir Woods oaks would be cut down and transformed into paneling for the Red Gym, itself a 109-year-old, historic campus landmark. The idea seemed to fit the history of trees and the memory of Muir Woods’ namesake John Muir, who, before his days as a famed naturalist, walked among them as a student.

“It was a perfect arrangement,” Einstein says, noting that many sick trees are simply cut and used for firewood. “We found a higher use for the wood.”

Last month, after a lengthy process of milling the lumber into boards, drying them and precisely cutting them into paneling, the wainscoting was installed in the On Wisconsin Room of the Red Gym.

In a new form, the trees are again looking out over Lake Mendota. And thanks to the generosity of the Morgridge Center for Public Service, which funded the project, the ancient red oak has been preserved as a part of the university’s history.

“People like the idea of trees as timelines to history,” says Karlsson. “A project like this is wonderful — hard work, but extremely gratifying.”

Photos by Micahel Forster Rothbart

Photo of Butch Peschl in a tall oak tree, trimming branches.

Butch Peschl of Wolfe Tree Service lops off limbs from a dead red oak tree in Muir Woods, behind the Social Sciences Building. This particular tree, however, was destined not to disappear completely from the campus.

Photo of arborist Daniel Einstein counting the rings of a recently fallen tree.

While Peschl (left) packs up equipment, campus arborist Daniel Einstein (right) counts the tree’s rings. The red oak had lived 143 years. It had sprung from the ground two years before many UW–Madison students heeded President Lincoln’s call and headed off to fight in the War of Secession.

Photo of Bjorn Karlsson running logs through a portable sawmill.

Bjorn Karlsson, associate researcher in horticulture, uses a portable sawmill to cut one-inch-thick boards from the logs of the Muir Woods trees. Karlsson runs Urban Forest Furniture, a small business that salvages old city trees for reuse as lumber.

Photo of Dennis Jacobson of UW Carpentry installing panels in the Reg Gym.

The last stop for the Muir Woods trees is in the form of wainscoting. Carpenter Dennis Jacobson of the UW Carpentry Shop installs the panels in a Red Gym conference room.