By Adam Moore
Deep in the woods of Quansoo grows what may be the oldest, and what certainly is the grandest, tree in the town of Chilmark.
The Quansoo oak tree is a white oak, Quercus alba, a species that is native to the Island. The white oak features leaves with lobes that are rounded, rather than pointed, and flaky bark that is generally white in color. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the white oak grows commonly throughout eastern North America, with a range that stretches from southern Maine to eastern Texas. On Martha’s Vineyard, white oak trees are common as well, and they are found from Aquinnah to Chappaquiddick. White oaks produce some of the best lumber of any American hardwood. White oaks felled at Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary were used to replace the rotten sills, beams, and joists in the historic Hancock-Mitchell House at Quansoo Farm.
The Quansoo oak, however, is no typical white oak. From north to south, the crown of this tree measures 90 feet across. The sheer spread of the crown may make this tree an Island record, yet its appearance is what makes it so remarkable. With grotesque curving limbs, the tree appears more octopus than oak. From a central circle of what once was a stump, some 11 serpentine limbs radiate outward. These limbs start out stout, but taper in girth as they snake outward, terminating ultimately in thin, bony twigs. As each limb extends, it curves up and then down, sometimes bends into the soil and then reemerges, reaching back toward the sun. Though the highest branches of this tree may be about 20 feet high, the tree generally takes a prostrate form, as if a giant squid had been washed upon the shore, turned upside-down, tentacles wriggling, and then turned into wood. The tree is healthy. Here and there, a few limbs have died and dropped onto the ground. As the tree is a white oak, however, the tree was spared the onslaught of the cynipid wasp, a pest that killed some of the black oaks nearby but left the white oak unscathed.