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‘Favorite’ live oak tree at Menil cut down Monday is ‘a lesson in letting go’

July 24, 2018

In a sunlit patch of grass near the Menil Collection, all that remained Monday of a beloved oak tree were misshapen brown stumps. The intersection of Mulberry and Branard saw plenty of passers-by pausing to mourn the loss of their “favorite tree” in the city.

The once-sprawling live oak tree was a spot for friends, families and couples to hang out. The tentacle-like branches dipped down to the ground like a hand from Mother Nature, inviting visitors to sit in its cozy grooves. For many, the tree held a special place in their lives, a unique location where some of their most intimate memories took place.

“It was the first day of spring and we were sitting under a hammock, when one of our friends asked us if we were boyfriend and girlfriend,” Harley Graber said with a smile. “She said ‘yes’ and it was news to me, but that’s when I knew for sure.”

Graber, 24, said seeing the tree cut down Monday morning was “heartbreaking” and it was the first time he cried over a tree. Clutching one of the pieces of bark that was left on the ground, he said he was reluctant to tell his girlfriend that their favorite tree was gone.

“I’m sure she’s going to be just as bummed as I am,” he said. “But I know she’ll be able to make something beautiful out of this,” he said, gesturing to the bark in his hand. “She’s an artist.”

Although a representative from the Menil Collection sympathized with community members that the cutting of the tree is “really devastating,” he said it had to be done. The city forester told the Menil that the tree was a “public safety hazard” and advised them to cut it down, said Tommy Napier, assistant director of communications at the Menil.

The tree was struck by lightning 10 years ago, and the museum’s arborists had been monitoring it ever since because it experienced “irreparable damage,” Napier said. As much as community members loved to sit, climb and play on the tree limbs, the constant activity and prior damage caused the tree to deteriorate over time, Napier said.

Sitting just a few feet from where the tree once stood, 18-year-old Kalyani Persaud enjoyed a picnic in the shade with her friend. For her, the space seemed “empty” without the tree, which held memories of a close friend who had recently died.

“My friend Chip and I would hang out there,” Persaud said, looking back at the large expanse where the tree boughs used to hang. “The branches fell perfectly to the ground. It was always the most pretty place because it was where people used to hang out.”

In mourning

Claudia Baba stopped her car in front of the tree stumps after her friend texted her that the tree had been chopped down. Pulling out her smartphone, she snapped a few pictures of the remnants. Baba has lived across the street for 20 years and said she has seen the tree change over time, so she was not surprised it was cut.

“I know a lot of people are coming to express mourning,” Baba said.

Another beloved Houston live oak cut down: Meyerland ‘Hero Tree’ honoring pilot killed in 1961 crash is cut down

A steady stream of cars passed by Monday afternoon, drivers slowing to a crawl as they took in the spot where the tree once stood.

Pointing to another oak tree across the way diagonally, Baba said the museum is taking greater measures to protect its other trees, after what happened to this one. She said arborists are growing tall grass as a signal for people not to come too close.

“It was a sacred tree,” said Max Mazy Jr., 30. It was the perfect spot because of the long, comfortable branches that were ideal for reading and studying, he said.

“It was an intimate spot to sit and connect with people,” Mazy Jr. said. “There were nice grooves and multiple parties could hang out without bothering each other.”

Every Sunday, Mazy said, he would relax on the tree and enjoy the drum circle that congregated there.

Sharing in Mazy’s bewilderment, 24-year-old Sebastien Lutomski walked up to the remnants of the oak tree, his mouth agape in disbelief.

“Everyone knows this tree,” insisted Lutomski. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been kicked off for walking up it. It was the most welcoming tree.”

He attended Lamar High School and even back then, Lutomski and his friends would eat lunch at the tree and hang out there after school. More recently, the tree has been a place to relax before heading into the Rothko Chapel, where he practices Vipassanā meditation.

“Trees are a gift and this is a gift, teaching me not to be too attached to things,” Lutomski said. “I guess this is a lesson in letting go.”

elizabeth.myong@chron.comtwitter.com/elizabeth_myong

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