The word “venerable” is often applied with the connotation of age. Although the word in its own right really means to “adore,” or “worship,” objects of extreme age evoke that response. Perhaps the fact that “time-honored” is used as a synonym helps create that impression. As human beings, many of us experience an awe at being in the presence of something much older than ourselves. When I read about the Great Swamp Oak, then, I knew I would eventually need to see it. Reliable indications of a living tree’s age are difficult to assess for a non-botanist. Websites don’t give much thought to checking out the oldest tree in the state (although I did discover The NJ Big Tree Registry), but there are those who give that honor to the white oak of Basking Ridge, not far from the Great Swamp Oak. Others seem to indicate that the swamp denizen is older—somewhere in the range of 700 years. In the state of New Jersey, where things are constantly being reinvented and reconstructed, it is a source of comfort to find something so old leaving peacefully in a swamp.
Now that I’ve used the words “tree” and “worship” together, I am inevitably brought back to the conceit of Asherah. As my academic writings have adequately demonstrated, I have doubts about the goddess’s association with trees. Nevertheless, there is something venerable about an ancient tree. If the Great Swamp Oak is 700 years old, it was already alive well before the “Age of Exploration” began. The only people to know of it, when there was as yet nothing to know, were First Nations inhabitants of the region. It was a time when, to American Indians, Europe did not even exist. Meanwhile across the ocean the plague could have been raging. A century or two later, Europeans would bring their plagues to these shores, forever changing the landscape. And not in a good way.
Trees, without human interference, can have tremendous life spans. In our short-sighted way, however, we have often understood them as nuisances in the way of some great shopping mall or industrial site. The “lungs of the planet,” trees have been wantonly destroyed in the name of progress. It is amazing that, especially on the East Coast, a few of them managed to avoid the axe and saw. Looking up into the branches of this great oak, I marvel at the changes that have taken place that, in its own way, this tree has “seen.” The world outside this swamp would be completely unrecognizable. Whether an asherah or not, I find myself reacting to the venerable nature of this sentinel of the ages. If only we could learn to keep our hands off young trees that nature plants, who knows what wonders future generations might experience in places even more unlikely than a swamp.