BERNARDS, NEW JERSEY - A white oak tree that has watched over a New Jersey community and a church for hundreds of years began its final bow Monday as crews began its removal and residents fondly remembered the go-to spot for formal photos, the landmark for driving directions and the remarkable piece of natural history.
Crews at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Bernards began taking down the 600-year-old tree that was declared dead after it began showing rot and weakness over the last couple of years.
The two to three days of chopping and pulling will draw attention from residents of a bedroom community about 30 miles (48 kilometers) west of New York, and other tree fans who see it as a chance to bid a final farewell to their close friend.
"I know it seems funny to some to mourn a tree, but I'm really going to miss seeing it," said Bernards resident Monica Evans, recalling family photos during weddings and communions.
The tree has been an important part of the community since the town's inception in the 1700s. Officials say it was the site of a picnic Gen. George Washington held with the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Rev. George Whitefield, a noted evangelist, preached to more than 3,000 people beneath the tree in 1740.
Arborists say the tree had stood for nearly 300 years before the church was built in 1717. It stands about 100 feet tall, has a trunk circumference of 18 feet and has a branch spread of roughly 150 feet. Officials say the crews plan to initially remove the large limb segments until there is a large trunk section still standing, then remove that section in one piece.
Its death was likely due to its age. Arborists determined it wouldn't be able to withstand many more harsh winters or spring storms.
"It has been an integral part of the town, that's for sure," said Jon Klippel, a member of the church's planning council. "It has always been there, even before there was a town, and over the years many people have met there, been photographed there, had a meal under the tree. We've been blessed to have it here."
But there is a silver lining for tree fans: Another white oak cultivated from the old tree's acorns was recently planted at the church, so its legacy will continue at the church.
The old tree's removal is a reminder of how older trees are starting to become less common across the nation.
Experts say fewer trees are replicating the old oak's 600-year lifespan. They note that several factors — including droughts, intensive wildfires and invasive insects — can greatly harm trees, which become more susceptible to damage as they age.