For 140 years, a tree grew in Buckhead.
It was a white oak, just a few feet from what today is West Paces Ferry Road.
Over the course of its life, it stretched ever upwards and outwards, its branches and leaves filling the air, striving for sunlight and open space. The movement was imperceptible, day by day, year by year, decade by decade.
It survived droughts and downpours, snow and ice, high winds and tornados. More impressively, it survived the torrent of development. Oak is synonymous with strength, but older trees are sensitive to construction disturbances. Its entire life practically was in the shadow of construction.
It was there before John Slaton, the 60th governor of Georgia, built his home in the area, giving the side street its name. It was there before the Buckhead Village. It was there before Sears, Roebuck and Co. opened a store a hundred yards up the road.
It was there before the Atlanta History Center, or even its parent organization, the Atlanta Historical Society, was founded in 1926.
That august institution grew around it, spreading its reach over nearly every inch of the 33 acres starting with the acquisition in 1966 of the Swan House. The center didn’t stretch as high but made up for it in breadth, eventually taking over the entire block, including the ground beneath the oak.
Oaks reach the end of their life spans in urban areas after about 150 years. They are known to thrive for 300 years in less dense areas. With about 140 years, give or take, under her bark, the center sent an arborist to check on her and decided to take her down before she came down on her own.
The popular perception is history is in the past. It’s in the definition: “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs.”
Those of us who are attuned recognize history is also in the present. I’m typing these words, but by the time you read them in your present, they are in my past. When historians look back on how Atlanta reacted to COVID-19, for example, they may well read the journal by your bedside.
The center, more than perhaps any other organization, knows this.
When it was time for the tree to come down, Sarah Roberts, the center’s vice president of Goizueta Gardens and Living Collections, found a way to preserve the history of now.
The tree became a functioning work of art and history right where it had stood in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Roberts and the center recruited woodworker Kirk McAlpin III. A tree removal company took the tree down in 8-foot sections, which were milled into 3-inch-wide slabs. McAlpin air-dried them for two years.
He then spent seven months crafting the pieces into an enormous table in the tree’s exact shape, from its base up through its outstretched limbs, laid horizontally. An exercise in patience, it required seven layers of epoxy to weather the elements once again.
Each piece reflects the tree’s life, from the boring of beetles to the decay that led to its removal shown in the darker-colored wood.
The table stretches 60 feet long and is 30 feet wide, connected by steel beams. Each section weighs between 400 and 700 pounds.
It is in the entrance gardens on West Paces Ferry. It is the perfect spot to enjoy lunch, a cup of coffee or a conversation, even socially distanced amid the pandemic.
It was a mighty white oak. At the end of its life cycle, it became in a table.
It is more than that.
It is a work of art and a work of historic preservation. The tree table is Buckhead and Atlanta’s history, a nod to our dense forests, out of which we carved a city and a community.