A tremendous tree gets a proper goodbye

Neighbors gathered Thursday evening to mourn perhaps the oldest resident on Russell Street.

The towering, elegant Italian stone pine tree on the corner of Russell and Cherry, thought to be around 125 years old, has died. Its current owners threw a “going away party” Thursday so admirers could come pay their respects before it got chopped down.

“For generations, this magnificent and iconic tree has beautified our neighborhood, shaded our sidewalks, fed our squirrels, housed our songbirds and uplifted our spirits. We’ll miss it terribly,” wrote Adam Gutride, Delilah Raybee and their son Solomon in an invitation they posted on their fence.

Since the family moved to the Elmwood house where the tree stands in 2014, many passers-by have approached them or knocked on their door to ask about the tree, Gutride said.

At the evening ceremony, about 15 neighbors circled around the pine and shared memories and poems. Plastic gravestones and skeletons left over in the yard from Halloween contributed to the mood of the Día de los Muertos memorial.

Some neighbors recalled playing on a swing that used to hang from the tree when they were children, and others said artists used to set up easels nearby to try to capture the beauty of the red, brown and grey mosaic of the bark. Designer Scott Page, who came to the memorial, said he’s used the tree to test his laser scanner and create 3D models.

Emily Blossom, who lives two houses away, said the makeup of the neighborhood has changed over time, and although she’s experienced loss before, “I never thought I was going to see this neighbor go.”

“This neighbor is one of the giants, and I equate it with the great people I’ve known,” Blossom said. “I feel like we’re losing a dear and close friend.” She thanked the hosts for their “sensitivity” in their delivery of the news.

Gutride said the family first noticed the pine needles turning brown a few months ago, and the decline after that was rapid. The family has consulted with experts about the cause of the tree’s death, but nobody is certain. It could just be old age, he said, or the drought, or the loss of a twin stone pine on the property several years ago when neighbors did construction work (a neighborhood “scandal,” said one person in attendance). Gutride said there has been some concern over the renovations and pruning his family did when they moved in, but nobody has confirmed that to be the cause.

“We’ve had many experts tell us that for a tree to live 113 years in the middle of a city is kind of astonishingly long,” he said.

Gutride estimated the tree’s age based on the year the house was built. Cherry Street was created when the 24-acre Kelsey Ranch was subdivided in the late 1800s, and the neighborhood was mostly developed by the 1920s, historians say. There used to be a street car line on Russell, taking visitors past the tree and to the Claremont Hotel.

Neighborhood historian Burl Willes told Berkeleyside the tree is actually more like 125 years old, as the Berkeley Historical Society has a photo of it in its “infancy” in 1906. Based on the height of the tree in that image, Willes calculated its age.

“Stone pines don’t live much longer than 100 years. It had a long and good life,” said Willes, author of “Tales from the Elmwood.” Willes said Ishi, the last known survivor of the Yahi tribe, lived on the street with anthropologist Thomas Waterman and used to sit under the tree and watch the street car, as evidenced by a photo. Berkeley artist Elmer Bischoff also grew up in the neighborhood, at the same time the tree grew up, Willes said.

“What is remarkable is the color and texture of bark at sunset — it’s a fabulous work of nature’s art,” Willes said. 

At the Thursday ceremony, a young child stripped off a piece of that bark and said, “This will be my memory.”

The tree must come down early this month, Gutride told his neighbors gently. Some of the wood will be chipped and available for neighbors to take. The family might try to use it to build a table, too, and has plans to plant something in the pine’s stead.

Gutride said, “When they start going there’s not many things you can do.” Other than throw a goodbye party.

Some of the tributes paid to the tree. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Neighbors came on Thursday to pay their tributes to the tree. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
The distinctive bark of the Italian stone pine. Photo: Kelly Sullivan