Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ June 2022

Saving Our Black Walnut ‘Witness Tree’

By Robin Loube

Once or twice nearly every day, I walk with my pup or my husband through North Four Corners Park and up the path around the soccer field, stopping to gaze at the huge native black walnut tree that crowns the field, encircled by a protective wooden fence.

Often, I can’t resist telling a passerby, “Hey, did you know that tree is nearly 200 years old?”

Our ancient black walnut tree above the soccer field.

I want everyone to experience the wonder of our “witness tree,” a living organism that has seen so much history.  Our walnut tree was about 30 years old when Abe Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861, 50 when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.  It marked its centenary year when Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic, and passed 125 when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.

And I want folks to know we can’t take that tree for granted.  It might have been destroyed if not for the dedicated efforts of our civic association at the time, led by our neighbors Carole Barth and her husband, Jim Zepp.

The walnut tree leafs out in May, just as it’s done for nearly 200 years

First, the group petitioned the county in 1996 to purchase the land where the soccer field sits when it was put on the market after the closing of a private school.  By preventing the land from being sold to developers, this purchase added 6 acres to the original 7.9 acres of North Four Corners Park, and kept the tree from being sacrificed to make way for new housing.

Then the NFCCA battled relentlessly for years for the preservation of the walnut tree as well as of other native species as the county planned, designed, and constructed the new park area, a process that took 13 years from its start in 2003.  Some of the county’s proposed designs which NFCCA fought would have destroyed the walnut tree.

To try to inspire county planners to save this tree, Carole arranged for a local tree expert to estimate its age.  Among other considerations, this was accomplished by measuring the tree’s circumference at about four and a half feet high, calculating the diameter and multiplying that by the black walnut’s species-specific number of 4.5, which put the tree at about 180 years old at the time.  Jim also produced a timeline for the tree [see link below], listing the historical events it would have “witnessed” since it sprouted around 1830.

The thick old trunk is a sculptural masterpiece.

Carole and Jim saved the tree from possible destruction on a February morning in 2008 when they discovered that a county work crew of 8 to 10 men with heavy equipment had been “rampaging” through the new parcel, including under the walnut, Carole said, felling and clearing out trees and digging out boulders.  Carole went straight up there and found the workers on break but was told that the goal was “to be able to see from University Boulevard to the rec center.”  She stayed for hours, prepared to “lie down in front of the bulldozer” to protect the walnut tree.  Meanwhile, Jim had called the local press and then-Councilmember Marc Elrich, and — when Elrich’s staff person and a reporter showed up — the work was shut down for the day.

Thanks to NFCCA’s persistence, the county’s final plan for the park preserved the black walnut, and a fence was added to keep heavy equipment off the critical roots.  Ironically, given how hard the civic association had to work to save that tree during the county’s design and construction process, when the county itself advertised the re-opening of the North Four Corners Local Park in April 2016, it touted among the park’s benefits its “protection for a significant walnut tree.”

When I told Carole about my love for that tree and my awe at its longevity, she understood exactly what I meant.  “The long-lived trees have a different experience of time than we do,” she said, “and by knowing them, we get a little peak into that window.  It enlarges us in a sense, because by having a connection with something so old and so large, it’s so much more than us.  And when you touch that bark, you are in a sense touching that time.  It makes that time so much more real.”   ■

Black Walnut Tree Timeline

   © 2022 NFCCA  [Source:]