The break is a piece of art in itself.
The hickory tree is under the genus Carya. It's named after the Greek goddess Carya, whose promiscuity caused her to be transformed into a nut tree by the wino Dionysus. That's the kind of experience that could harden a girl. And it did. Hickory wood is arguably the strongest and hardest wood on the planet.
Over the years hickory has been used to construct everything from aircraft to drumsticks. Tool handles, bows and canoe paddles made of hickory can outlast metal-casted counterparts. Because of its durability, parents and teachers of the 1800s reached for hickory switches as the punitive tool of choice.
For a 150-year-old shagbark hickory at Madison's Hudson Park, none of this was enough to withstand the wrath of a single lightning bolt on June 1. It was as though Dionysus was still torturing poor Carya.
The storm that day couldn't have been much different from the thousands of thunderstorms the old shagbark on the north pitch of the park had endured in the past. In fact, the tree wore wounds of two previous lightning strikes: two long seams of scar where bark no longer showed.
The next morning, neighborhood resident Matthew Miller walked Lakeland Avenue to assess the storm damage. The site of the hickory at Hudson stopped him in his tracks. The heat created by the electric charge traveling through the tree had instantly vaporized its sap, causing a steam explosion that burst the trunk in two, as if with TNT, about 25 feet off the ground.
Miller looks right at home in the forest. The soil scientist is nimble. Combined with his sparkling eyes and white beard, he looks like J.R.R. Tolkien's character Gandalf. Especially when he wraps his arms around a tree.
"I can't get my arms all the way around it!" he announces over his shoulder.
I've come to Hudson Park to see the hickory, to meet Miller and two of his neighbors, and to learn how the splitting apart of a tree can bring a neighborhood together.
After discovering the tree, Miller called former Schenk-Atwood Neighborhood Association board member and friend John Steines. Steines immediately emailed city officials in an attempt to introduce caution into the next chapter for the tree. He described his correspondence in our meeting at the park.
"This tree is special, it's on sacred space," he said. "We need to salvage what we can. We didn't want the city to come and chip the thing and take it away."
Indeed, the tree stood sentry over sacred land. The un-mown rise at Hudson Park is an Indian effigy mound, a water spirit, built circa A.D. 700-1200.
In Ojibwe, hickory is called "mitigwaabaak," a compound of mitigwaab, or "bow," and the final -aak, meaning "hard wood tree."
Of course it wasn't the Ojibwe who planted the hickory. It was obviously a windfall seedling that took root around the same year that Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses Grant the commander of the Union Army. As for the mound, it was more likely built by the Ho Chunk or an ascendant tribe. The Ho Chunk used the site as ceremonial grounds as late as the 19th century.
What's next for the tree is, appropriately enough, connected to the sanctuary of the ground over which it towered. Steines and Miller are working with the city to make sure no machines tread on or near the mound when the main structure of the tree is dealt with. By all accounts the city and the DNR's Urban Forestry Department are fully on board.
Miller, Steines, nearby resident Twink Jan-McMahon and I discussed all of this just a few feet from the remaining 25-foot trunk of the tree. As we talked, I had the inexplicable feeling that the tree was eavesdropping.
Jan-McMahon is executive director of Sustainable Atwood, an agency that seeks to direct urban forest wood into the economy rather than into the chipper. This work has special significance in the wake of the downed trees from storms earlier this week. She foresees a use for the hickory wood that would enable it "to stay in our lives another 150 years." Her ideas include handing over the wood to her network of local sawyers and artists to create a bench for the park and to fashion medallions to be hung on neighborhood door posts as testimonials to the future of a healthy and responsibly used urban forest.
Steines pointed over our heads to the shattered top of the remaining trunk.
"Look at the manifestation of the break," he said. "It's a piece of art in itself."
"See the eye of the horse?" said Miller.
"The horse?" I thought. Then I focused, really focused, on the top section. A chill ran through me when I realized what a single lightning strike had rendered on this sacred hill. The horse's head could not have been better formed in the hands of a woodworker.