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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Icon of Berks County

Darrin Youker answers questions about Berks County in his column, You Ask Youker, in the Reading Eagle newspaper. Below is today's question and his answer. I don't endorse the pantheistic worship of this tree but how many counties have a 400 year-old tree, still alive and growing?

Q: What are the meaning and the story behind the Sacred Oak in Oley Township?

A: She's a little out of place here in the Oley Valley. Towering 80 feet tall, with a crown of gnarled branches that arches over the forest floor, and a girth of 20 feet, the Sacred Oak of Oley is one massive tree.
Truth be told, she does not belong in Berks County. A yellow oak, and the second largest of its kind in the United States, the Sacred Oak is not native to this area. No one knows for sure how long the Sacred Oak has stood in Oley, but experts estimate the tree is at least 400 years old. There's no way of knowing how the oak got here. Reading Eagle reader Emily Yoder-Scheider had heard bits and pieces about the Sacred Oak but wanted to know its significance to Berks County.
Dating back to Native American times, when the Lenapes were the only people living here, the oak was revered. According to legend, a chief prayed to the tree, asking the Great Spirit to heal his gravely ill wife. She eventually recovered, said Lorah Hopkins, an Oley Township resident who has studied the tree's history. Warring tribes smoked peace pipes under the tree's massive canopy, Hopkins said. "Either the tree had been such massive size when they got here, or they had received it as a gift," said Hopkins. "It has been here an awful long time."
The mystique of the Sacred Oak has not dimmed over time. Rachel Theis, who owns the land the Sacred Oak sits on, has met hundreds of people from across the country who visit the tree. People have spread their loved one's ashes at the tree, and Native Americans continue to hold ceremonies here.
Theis, who has studied horticulture, believes the tree came from an acorn brought to the area by another Indian tribe. A yellow oak acorn was either dropped here by accident or was part of trade, she said. Theis bought the property three years ago and has become the tree's caretaker. Years of neglect had left the oak slowly dying. Trees were growing up in the oak's canopy, choking its growth. "This is a field tree, not one that belongs in a forest," she said. Theis cleared out more than 50 trees to give the oak some breathing room. It's still hidden in a grove, but the tree is producing acorns - a good sign of health, she said. Theis checks the tree most days and is sometimes surprised by the tokens left behind - stuffed animals, pictures and flowers. On a recent visit, someone had scribbled little messages on a pieces of birch bark.
There is something magical about the oak, maybe its size or the legend that surrounds it. Whatever it is, the Sacred Oak has become an icon of Berks County.
"The sacred oak holds a fascination for people. It has a special aura around it," Hopkins said. "It is more than just a tree."

1 comment:

Karen A. Chase said...

It's been a while since this post, so I hope my comment will still find its way to you. Is this "Sacred Oak" considered the same as the Mammoth Oak or Centennial of Berks County that was located on Bieber's farm? I thought I had read that the Mammoth Oak was sadly gone, but is the sacred oak still standing? Please feel free to contact me. I'm putting info on the Mammoth Oak into a novel.