Champion Trees
Riverdave's Journal
May 3, 2009

          Several years ago, a friend of mine who was a professor at Duke introduced me to her father who had recently retired from a career of overseas work as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service. He had just moved back to the United States so that he could be a part of the lives of his growing flock of grandchildren.

          I was curious to learn what such a person would find to do to focus his attention after such a challenging and stimulating career overseas. I gently asked him about his retirement plans, suspecting that he would be one of those hopelessly lost souls who could find nothing engaging to do with his hard-won free time.

          But his answer was swift and decisive. He claimed that he had embarked on a mission to see how many new trees he could add to his home state's list of champion trees! I was astonished by his unique new path. He further explained that there are state champions for all of our native species of trees.

          These trees, according to a calculated formula that includes circumference, height and crown spread, constitute the largest individual trees of each species found in a particular state. The last I heard from this retiree, through all his treks and wanderings, he had added more new finds to his state's champion tree list than any other person in his home state of Connecticut. Honestly, I have yet to hear of a better retirement plan!

          The North Carolina Champion Tree list can be found at the N.C. Forest Service Web site: On the home page's left column under "Urban & Community Forestry" you will find a link to the "Champion and Big Tree Database." As it turns out, there are three state champions in Durham County and eight in Orange County. The locations of these trees are provided so that anyone can go out and find them on their own. Many champions are found in parks and public lands. If the tree is located on private property, the owner's permission will be needed if you intend to make a pilgrimage in person.

          Two of Durham's champions, the Southern Sugar Maple and the Shellbark Hickory, are found very near to each other in a natural area along New Hope Creek behind the Fred Astaire Studio on Garrett Road. I used to visit the state shortleaf pine champion located near the Eno River. But alas, it has lost its state champion status to a newly discovered and even grander shortleaf pine in Stokes County.

          I propose that in addition to our state list, it would be to the advantage of our local community to start a countywide list of champion trees as well. This would be a great motivation for weekend afternoon outings in our area. Just imagine -- hundreds of local residents pouring out of their morning indoor places of worship to explore wood lots, parks and forests, on a mission to discover and honor our own local champion trees. Our tagged county champions could then be plotted on a map for others to reference and enjoy and could be added as an addendum to our county's Inventory of significant natural areas.

          Other discoveries may occur as well as we seek out these local champion trees. We might question ourselves afresh, asking "Who are the truly wise elders and counselors of our community?" Do they of necessity reside within the halls of our large universities, at seats of government, in prestigious business suites or beneath high steeples?

          We might discover that the most wise among us have branches and leaves instead of arms and hands, or trunks and roots instead of legs and feet. What if each of us were to sit silently under a grand old tree for a few minutes each day, mindfully breathing in its gifts of oxygen, shade and beauty, carefully listening to its song? Perhaps the tree would act as a mirror, helping each of us to see our true lives in relation to other members of our community, both human and non-human, with whom we share this corner of the planet.
 Photo by Riverdave: Northern Red Oak at the Sennett Hole, the largest individual tree at West Point on the Eno Park, Durham NC