The unique thing about trees is that they remain in one place for years on end, witnessing time slowly change the world around them. According to the incredible Tree Keeper resource cultivated for the University of Illinois as part of the Illinois Climate Action Plan, my tree is an American beech (TreeKeeper). For reference, Tree Keeper is a platform that identifies every tree on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus, along with details about its measurements, species, pictures, and, for certain trees, the dates that they were planted. Using an approximate tree age calculator and the Tree Keeper’s reported diameter at breast height for the tree of 40 inches, this American beech can be roughly placed at 76 years old (“Tree Age Calculator”). As humans, it’s difficult to imagine the world that you’d experience if you stayed in one place for 76 years. It sorts of evokes that feeling that comes when life has been moving around you so quickly and suddenly everything comes to a standstill. You look back and you can’t believe how much time has passed. It feels as if you were only yesterday much younger and in a completely different place in your life. I think that feeling comes from the constant changing of scenery, environments, and distractions around us and the fact that our society never seems to really slow down. There’s always something else to do or something else we can fill our time with to distract us from the world around us. And we can’t really take a full moment to pause and simply observe because there’s a constant feeling of missing out on something. When was the last time you stood in the same spot and just observed the world around you?
This tree has stood in this little spot of grass off Lincoln Avenue since approximately 1944. Since the university was founded 77 years before the tree’s birth, it was likely planted in this area to add an element of nature to the campus, not to mention all the other environmental benefits of having more planted trees. Trees can reduce the temperature of hot outdoor parks and streets, save water and reduce water pollution by mitigating the effects of runoff, reinforce the quality of the surrounding soil, and control erosion from rain and wind. Similarly, having an abundance of trees provides cleaner air for students and faculty, sequesters carbon to reduce environmental air pollution, and provides plenty of habitat for diverse species to make their homes on the campus. One thing that the university has strived to incorporate into its outdoor campus is a vast biodiversity of tree species. There are around 188 different tree species on the University of Illinois campus. A wide variety of trees is ideal for combating invasive species. As an example, the nonnative emerald ash borer preys on ash trees, and has decimated over 90% of the species in North America since its introduction in the early 2000s. With 188 different species, any threat to a tree species will not threaten the entire tree population on campus, since most of the planted species would not succumb to the threat. The American beech tree itself has a few harmful forces working against it. Beech bark disease is a major concern in the northeastern portion of the country, and beech leaf disease has been an up-and-coming predator that was first discovered in 2012 in Ohio. Beeches in general are also known to be negatively impacted by flooding and late spring frosts. If these trees were the only ones planted, the likelihood of all of the university’s foliage being killed would be quite high, so weaving biodiversity into the natural fabric of the campus helps keep the beeches alive and maintain the general tree-filled look of the university grounds. The beech’s nearest campus landmark, Allen Hall, is a well-known staple of a campus building. Construction began on the building in April of 1956, when this American beech was around 12 years old (Leetaru). The building opened in the spring of 1958 to house 699 college-aged women. Almost 700 women who attended the university in the late 1950s experienced this tree as a young, slowly growing piece of nature. It was not the voluminous canopy we see today, but a young tree growing up alongside the college women, just getting started on its long life on campus. On the other side of the canopy is Caffe Paradiso, a locally owned café that’s been open since August 1998, when the tree was around 54 years old (“Join the Team”). A well-loved Urbana study spot, Caffe Paradiso has been diligently serving patrons for 22 years, and it likely brought a huge shift to the life that the beech experienced daily. With more development comes more students, more people walking back-and-forth, chatting on their way to class and enjoying being outside in nature. The café’s introduction likely brought an abundance of attention to this little spot in Urbana and populated the area around the tree with liveliness.
Luckily for this beech tree, the future looks promising. In manufacturing, American beech trees are frequently used to make bentwood furniture because of the ease with which the wood can bend when it is steamed. However, this tree is unlikely to meet that same fate due to its importance to the campus. A famous beech tree in Kentucky lived until it was 325 years old, and only fell during a storm. If this tree can withstand the test of time as well as the one in Kentucky, it’s only about a quarter of the way through its lifespan. Without humans threatening its existence, it’s chances of a long, full life are much higher. What might this tree encounter in the next 70 years of its life? Where will the students and residents of this town be in their lives, what will life on campus look like? Though it’s hard for us to imagine life in 70 years, this tree will experience it all in a way that we never really can.
“Join the Team.” Caffe Paradiso, www.enjoyparadiso.com/join-the-team.html.
Leetaru, Kalev. “Allen Residence Hall.” Allen Residence Hall: UIHistories Project Virtual Tour at the University of Illinois, uihistories.library.illinois.edu/virtualtour/residencehalls/allen/.
“Tree Age Calculator.” Good Calculators: Free Online Calculators, goodcalculators.com/tree-age-calculator/.
TreeKeeper. 2020, illinoisedu.treekeepersoftware.com/ind.ex.cfm?deviceWidth=1500.