FROM READERS: The sad decline of the bur oak tree near McBaine

Thursday, October 31, 2013 | 5:11 p.m. CDT
The word "Prom?" is spray-painted on the bur oak tree near McBaine in this April 11 file photo.

Kenny Bassett has been a pipe fitter at MU for 40 years. He loves the outdoors and the Missouri River. He lives near and passes by the big bur oak tree near McBaine often.

For years, almost daily, I've driven by the big bur oak tree in the McBaine river bottoms going to and from work. I was 13 when I first saw it. I am 59.

The great flood of '93 washed the nearby gravel road away. This road passed by the tree at a greater distance from the tree than it is now. The gravel road was replaced in a new location, closely curving around the trunk.

A few years passed, and the road was paved with asphalt, receiving regular treatments of fresh oil. I watched as last year's treatment, in the period of a few days, applied to blistering pavement on one of the 100-degree days of the summer, withered the leaves on the limbs above the road. The pavement also very effectively blocks water from reaching the roots below, starving the limbs on the same side.

Being in the plumbing business for years has taught me not to disturb the roots under the drip line of a tree unless they are considered expendable. The damage I describe can readily be seen now, as a professional arborist has very recently removed the dead limbs hanging above the road. Some of the limbs were as big as large tree trunks. The southwest side, which should be the healthiest, now has been radically altered.

The road brings the pressures of human traffic, including me, dangerously close to the tree. Exhaust gases, winter road salt (not so bad with gravel), overflowing radiators, oil from the asphalt itself and parked vehicles of all kinds are all forces slowly contributing to the tree's obvious decline.

One winter, I removed a 100-pound pile of road salt accidentally spilled too close to the tree. Some ornery people have carved on it, painted it, taken souvenir pieces of bark, used it for target practice and, in some strange ritual, hung shoes from it. The tree has degraded incredibly fast since the paving of the road. I see that a large amount of irreversible damage has been done. Unless the asphalt road is moved out of the drip line of the tree, which probably will never happen, what is left of the natural life of one of the two largest bur oaks in the country will be even more thoroughly reduced.

As I pass by the old tree, I remember the plaque that used to be mounted on the concrete pillar nearby, extolling the virtues of the giant. It has long since disappeared and has been replaced by layers of graffiti. I remember when it was admired.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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