The Passing of a Sacred Tree

With old and new friends of the grove who’ve been with us at dawn on Beltane morn at the Mercer Oak— we mourn the passing of that much-loved tree.

Estimated at 280 years old, in local legend General Mercer died under the Oak after the Continental Army defeated the British in the battle of Princeton, one of a series of battles and skirmishes across New Jersey during the Revolutionary War.

On a more personal note, it’s the tree that my friends and I hung out in when I went to college in the late ’70s. Its massive branches were easy to climb, and held us all like the arms of a great mother. We’d smoke joints, drink beer, write poems and talk, and eventually she’d let us fall down to the soft grass at her feet. We were one of many generations of her children.

After I met my wife, Norma, we’d some-times drive down to the battlegrounds, spread a blanket beneath the Oak, and sleep or read, picnic, watch folks play frisbee or walk their dogs.

In the ’90s they put a split-rail fence around the tree, and hooked up guy-wires to keep it from splitting.

The Millstone River Morris dancers dance around the Oak at dawn on Beltane to ‘wake up the earth’, beginning a day of dancing that takes them all over the area. The grove has been joining them for the past five or six years, watching them dance as the sun rises with the mist across the fields. After the dancing and the maypole, they’d have us all gather around the tree in a circle and sing and chant “Grow Oak, Grow Oak...” Yet, in the last two years, you could see that the tree was on a deciduous variety of artificial life-support.

Death takes all of us, eventually. The Mercer Oak finally fell to old age and the elements in the beginning of March, this year. There are many old trees in New Jersey: Elms lining avenues, strange and haunted trees in the pine barrens, and old protected trees in our cities. New Brunswick even has the tree that inspired Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees”. The Mercer Oak was the Elder Statesman of New Jersey trees. It will be mourned, and missed.

—Edwin Chapman, March 22, Pagan Year 0