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Dying tree inspires.

When long-time AMERICAN FORESTS member Louis F. Spanner went on a routine tree-trimming job 14 years ago in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, he wasn't looking for a big tree.

But he sure found one.

During a break, Spanner, owner of Spanner Tree and Shrub Care in Pittstown, walked through the forest, batting away weeds and stickerbushes along a swampy path. The site he beheld, Spanner says, left him breathless. "I thought, 'That's the biggest tree I've ever seen!'"

At the time Spanner's hectic schedule prevented him from publicizing his discovery of the so-called Hunterdon hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). Still, word spread, and now the 85-foot-tall behemoth with a 19-foot 6-inch girth and a 6-foot 3-inch diameter has become the cause celebre of preservationists in this central New Jersey region.

"We think this tree stands for everything we're trying to do here," says Lora Jones, a member of Franklin Township's Open Space Advisory Committee and proud supporter of the venerable hackberry. "It's history and nature and beauty brought together. We want to preserve our natural resources."

Spanner notes that the hackberry might have made AMERICAN FORESTS' biennial National Register of Big Trees several years ago, but a larger tree was discovered before the list went to press. "Sure enough someone beat me by 6 or 8 inches."

It's likely the tree is 200 to 300 years old, and Spanner says rotting of its inner core is so severe that one of his employees "climbed into one end and all the way out" the other. The hackberry could live 10 to 15 more years but an ice storm or a gale could take it out, he says.

Meanwhile, the community is rallying around the tree. Local artists and photographers are recording the tree's visage for posterity, while sculptors carve the hackberry's broken limbs into wooden bowls. The results will be displayed from July 25 to September 5 at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton. Townsfolk and tourists alike may take a weekend tour to the tree, which stands on private property. Fourteen people attended the first tour, Jones reports.

Spanner's company has donated its services to the dying giant. So far it's removed several 10-inch-thick poison ivy vines, reams of invasive multi-flora rose, and other weeds. Hard work, but Spanner is grateful for the opportunity.

"The more people respect things like big trees and old homes, the more likely it is we'll preserve open space," Spanner says. "The tree is a good medium to cleave to as a reminder of things past and the things that we're losing."
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Title Annotation:forester Louis F. Spanner's efforts to extend the life of a dying tree
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jun 22, 1999
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