When a Tree Falls: Giving Founder’s Oak a Second Life

The response to the fall of our mighty oak was swift and resounding: first, grief, then grit. How could we find a way to honor this tree by giving it another life? Alongside an outpouring of memories came a slew of ideas. Could its wood be crafted into something usable? Could those who loved the tree take pieces for themselves? 

A team was assembled to discuss exactly that. Chief Operating Officer Keith Powell, Middle School Head Lauren Railey, Carter Innovation Studio Director Cassie Kise, and Middle School English Teacher Charlie Raymond spent several weeks exploring how best to honor our beloved tree. Beyond this introduction to our first careful steps in repurposing the tree, a blog series will keep you informed around the status of Founder’s Oak.

The Science of Reclaimed Wood

An essential early step in the reclaiming process is curing. Wood tends to twist and check as it dries. A robust curing process allows wood to wick moisture and settle into its final shape and hardness, all while protecting against rot. Proper curing will yield bone-dry wood that won’t continue to change–wood that is ready for cutting.

“We think of wood as dry on the inside, but it’s actually pretty wet,” said Charlie, who worked as a furniture maker prior to becoming a teacher. “When you go to a store and buy a milled piece of wood, you’re relying on that wood to be straight so you can build something out of it. The best pieces will stay straight only if they have gone through a careful drying process.” 

A tree as large and complex as Founder’s Oak will yield cuttings of different thickness. While the smallest pieces are expected to dry over the course of a single season, the trunk and large branches might need to be stored for five or more years. At the end of this process, the dimensions of the cuttings will have changed. Additionally, some of the pieces we set out to cure may have been lost to rot.

“Our particular kind of valley oak–quercus lobata–can be difficult to work with,” Charlie continued. “We can’t predict how much usable wood our tree will yield. Every piece of it is important to try to get as much as we can out of it.” That’s why it’s so important that we be strategic at this stage in where and how we cut the logs to cure. 

Enter Nick Harvey of Bay Area Redwood, the expert we’ve hired to oversee the harvesting of the tree. Nick has been on campus managing a process that could span two months. “At this point, most of the smaller limbs have been separated from the main trunk. The branches off the main trunk are called “secondaries”. The largest ones are as wide as tree trunks themselves and will take years to cure. The smallest pieces will be the first pieces ready for processing.” 

Once all of the smaller branches have been strategically cut and cleared away, Nick will partner with Kyle Dowd from Golden State Portable Milling on the milling of the main trunk. “Milling day will be a big day. Maybe a big two or three days,” Charlie commented. “The actual cutting of the main trunk will be noisy, but we won’t schedule it for a weekend. We’ll schedule it for during the week so that the community can see and be a part of what’s going on. It will be part of student learning.”

A photo of Founder's Oak Tree taken at The Athenian School in Danville, CA
A photo of Founder’s Oak taken circa 2020

Speaking of Student Learning…

Summer conversations also focused on how to involve students in all aspects of recycling the tree, from these early harvesting steps, to curing, to cutting smaller pieces, and–eventually–to crafting. Though the viability of many ideas still needs to be assessed, one suggestion is to enlist students to help create proper storage conditions on campus and to have them oversee the curing of parts of the tree. 

“Rain is not an enemy of this process, but sunshine is. It can twist and warp the exposed side and not the other. A better technique is to find a shaded area to stack the wood with space between each slab so that air can flow. Sometimes, slabs need to be treated against insects. We could involve students in discussing what chemicals might be used to treat the slabs against decay,” said Charlie.

Carter Innovation Studio director Cassie Kise shared similar thoughts about timing for next steps. “People don’t realize how time-intensive fabrication is. As Americans, so much of the supply chain process is taken out of our purview that we don’t understand how long things take to make. It’s important that we employ patience and instill those values in our students as well.” 

Small branches from early cuttings, staged in front of the Carter Innovation Studio at The Athenian School
Small branches from early cuttings, staged in front of the Carter Innovation Studio

Though fully recycling the tree will take a series of years, discussions of early craft projects are also underway, as are more general discussions about how to better integrate woodworking into the curriculum. “Ultimately, the tree will dictate what we do with it,” Cassie continued. “Once we gain an understanding of the materials we have to work with, it’s our job to expand the conversation to other members of our community, especially students. We also need to emulate our values as an institution. For example, wood that isn’t used to craft an item might integrate with our ecosystem in the form of mulch. Finally, we need to honor the spiritual legacy of the tree–the nostalgia and love encapsulated within it and how that should play into its second life.”

Though he acknowledged the tragedy of losing the tree, Charlie also underscored that Founder’s Oak deserves our respect. “Overall, this should be seen as a great opportunity to build our profile as an experiential school. We’re already doing that in the Carter Innovation Studio, in the art department, in our middle school Focus Days, and in our electives. Working with Founder’s Oak represents a huge opportunity to reinforce this.”

Dick Bradford Delivers Remarks about Founder’s Oak at 2022 Reunion

On June 1, our iconic Founder’s Oak tree fell. This majestic landmark at the front of campus witnessed the comings and goings of many generations of Athenians. It provided welcome shade for those who relaxed on benches beneath; it was the site of faculty and alumni weddings; countless families gathered under the tree to commemorate milestone events like first days of school and graduation.

At Reunion on June 4, just three days after the tree fell, former teacher and Upper School Head, Dick Bradford, addressed a crowd of 120 community members with his recollections of Founder’s Oak. Here is a transcript of his remarks:

For those of you who don’t know me, I am Dick Bradford, former dorm head, coach, literature teacher, academic dean, head of Upper School, and alumni parent. I came out here from New England in the fall of 1981, thinking I would be here for a couple of years. I retired in June of 2018.

I wanted to say a few words about the Founder’s Oak – a tree with which I have some history. When I started here , I was the dorm parent of Boys’ 1 – now known as Reinhardt. For those of you of a certain age, before me, this was Lester Henderson’s dorm.  My bedroom is now the Founder’s Oak conference room – my living room and kitchen are now Eric and Debbie’s offices. So I would go past that tree every morning on the way to breakfast. It provided great shade against the afternoon sun for my apartment.

As my career moved on at Athenian, I became in charge of organizing Back to School afternoons – where the parents had an opportunity to follow their children’s schedule for the afternoon, meeting briefly with their teachers – discovering why we had ten minute passing periods. This was in the early part of September, so we used the Founder’s Oak  for shade – I remember marking out the exact spots of shade to design the seating arrangement.

The Middle School used the Founder’s Oak as the site for their graduation every June. This posed a logistical problem for the Upper School, which at that time had an all school meeting in the nearby Main Hall– and we were told in no uncertain terms that our meeting could not interrupt the Middle School graduation under the Founder’s Oak. Since I knew I could not control a hall full of adolescents for an hour while the Middle School graduated, I made up the tradition of a walk of reflective silence, single-filing from the doors to the east lawn, up to the driveway of House 1, and then down the drive to meet on the far corner of the soccer field, where I would do my best to inspire the students with a poem ( Musee de Beaux Arts) or a story (The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas). This worked reasonably well, although I always felt vaguely guilty about creating ritual over a scheduling conflict.

Then we were told that the tree was in danger of falling. This was years and years ago, and we did our best to mitigate any damage we might have inadvertently have been doing through watering. All events under the tree were then cancelled – we re-scheduled the graduation ceremonies to avoid the conflict, thus ending the reflective silence ritual – and built an interpretative walkway with quotation from Kurt Hahn and Dyke Brown at various points. Lovely idea – not sure how many people were aware of it. More visible were the hundred of daffodils planted by Eleanor Dase that came up each year around the tree. Thanks again for that Eleanor – and again for everything.

So now the tree has fallen. I used to present a slideshow at the beginning of the year to students, trying to acquaint with the history of the school – one of the slides was from a local paper saying “Mighty Oak has Fallen”. It was talking about a huge oak that was on the entrance to the School – on the left, just past the school sign. This was then just a practice field, not the parking lot it is today. I bring it up only because oak trees fall all the time. When I lived in House 1, I was working in my study one night in late August, with the side door open, when I heard a sound I could not identify. We had a trampoline outside that door, and the only thing that came to mind was that a deer had somehow gotten into the trampoline and was struggling with the webbing.  I got a flashlight  – and the trampoline was fine. The next day, I looked out and  a huge oak tree halfway up the hill behind our house had split in two and fallen.

So, oaks have their cycle, as do all of us. I used to read a poem to the Upper School every spring about the cycle of trees. I come from New England – the poem is Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”.  I noticed that the oaks around my house on campus which lost their leaves in the fall would push forth leaf tips that were golden, and for a few short days, the leaves were gold, instead of green. Bruce Hamren complained every year that I was missing the purple phase of this transition – I’ll leave that to your judgment. This usually happened in March, so I would talk to the students about the transitory nature of beauty  – to remind them to make sure they treasured their moment with their friends , families and landscapes, because spring, like life, goes by like a torrent – and we need to reassure all that we have while we have it.  Here is the poem:

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

-Robert Frost

And I would say the same to all of you now – hold fast to these moments, make sure to appreciate love and beauty as they show themselves to you – this is, after all, what gives us appreciation for the past, an understanding of the present – and hope for the future.

Tané Remington  ’06 on Bold Career Moves and Aligning Career to Purpose

If you’d asked the 9th grade version of Tané Remington where she would end up in life, a career in STEM might have seemed out of reach. She failed her first chemistry exam junior year and struggled with basic concepts, despite seeming to grasp some of the more difficult ones.

Then, teacher Eugene Mizusawa made her a deal that would change her life’s trajectory: he promised her a passing grade if she joined robotics. Fifteen years later, Tané still likes to come to campus and play with robots, this time as a volunteer advisor to the current robotics team. And she doesn’t just inspire students with her knowledge. Stories of her circuitous path, which was paved with stones she collected at Athenian, tell of how she landed some of the most fascinating—and socially important—professions in the world.

“My department tried to understand how we might deflect asteroids that were coming toward the earth,” Tané mentioned casually when asked about her former role at Lawrence Livermore Labs. She went there as a postdoc after earning a Ph.D. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from UC San Diego. “I got to run simulations relating to asteroids with a range of attributes—rock, metal, bollides, etc.” It was Tané’s first professional job.

Following a two-and-a-half year stint in planetary defense, she was offered a full-time position at Lawrence Livermore, this time working in a nuclear forensics unit with adjacency to the Stockpile Responsiveness Program, an effort that fully exercises the capabilities of the US nuclear security enterprise. But after more than three years with the lab, an opportunity that felt supremely meaningful drew her to a new path.

“It just so happens that I’m obsessed with water,” Tané explained as she talked about Maelstrom Water, a high-tech desalination company of which Tané is a co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer. “It comes from being Californian, and also being Turkish, as we had a lot of water shortages.”

Desalination refers to processes that remove the salt content from water. Reverse osmosis is the most well-known approach. But Maelstrom endeavors to use a different method: cavitation. By reaching the temperature of the sun in a matter of microseconds, it can change the properties of its targets. Though a working desalination solution is not yet ready, Maelstrom has confirmed other applications of its technology (e.g., waste water, medical waste, soil remediation, the worldwide oceanic and fresh water algae bloom) and has numerous patents pending.

Tané spent all of middle and upper school at Athenian, except for one year she spent abroad. She attributed her spirit of innovation and curiosity at least partially to her Athenian teachers. “When I was in middle school, Sven and Ted really taught me how to love learning.” Beyond traditional classroom fare, Focus Fridays and volunteer service provided opportunities for perspective.

“I think Athenian’s values had an enormous impact on the person I became. I gave up a tenured position for less money, no stability. It’s risky, but it keeps me up at night thinking about our future with water.” She also mentioned her daughter as a driving factor behind her decision to make a move. “When my daughter asks me when she’s older what I work on, I can tell her how proud I am to have taken on an issue like desalination and committed to it as part of my legacy.”

Food for Thought: The Athenian School Community Cookbook

The Athenian Parent Association is selling Food For Thought, Athenian Community Cookbook 2012.  Get one before they sell out!  This amazing premier edition cookbook is a compilation of favorite recipes from parents, students, alumni, teachers and staff and it has truly captured the Athenian flavor!

The books were constructed using recycled paper products, are $25 apiece, and can be ordered by sending an email to atheniancookbook@gmail.com. The book is a great keepsake and makes a wonderful gift!

From the Introduction: “Food for Thought began as an Athenian Parent Association Fundraiser suggestion in the fall of 2011.  The idea was to create a collection of recipes, culinary adventures and kitchen lore from Athenian families and campus events–a cookbook to reflect the Athenian community around the world.  We hopes that Athenians would not only embrace Food for Thought, but also pass along their recipes and stories to create this special cookbook…It is our sincere wish that you enjoy exploring and sharing Food for Thought with friends and family.”

Learn more about the APA here.

Student “Teach-In” On the Occupy Movement

On a Wednesday in November, Athenian’s teachers and students joined together for a 2-hour “teach in” to discuss the economics behind our current recession and to learn more about the ongoing Occupy movements.

Upper School students and adults, inspired by the general strike in Oakland, spent some time sharing ideas and learning about issues related to the …worldwide Occupy movement. The Library hosted a break-out session to explore the economic and political events that spurred this movement. Other sessions addressing “Dialogue at Athenian” and “History of the Occupy Movement” were hosted elsewhere on campus. Students and faculty members facilitated these discussions, and students reported back to the group about what they had learned.