Standing on history, looking to the future

2 children on porch swing under Elder Oak
Swinging at twilight under Elder Oak

The second annual Sustain-In commenced underneath the Elder Oak where I gave these opening remarks. 

Thank you to everyone who is joining us for our second annual Sustain-in! We are so happy that we have this opportunity to collaborate on sustainability at DA. 

When we stand under the Elder Oak, we are standing on history. This tree is the oldest one on campus. It’s a Scarlet Oak, a member of the Red Oak family which is native to North Carolina. It is also a Champion Tree: the largest known Scarlet Oak in the state! What can you observe about it?

This tree has been measured by the North Carolina Forest Service and is estimated to be 200 years old.

It invites us to contemplate the last 200 years and the next 200. What can you imagine about this land 200 years ago? Who might have stood under it and watched it grow up?

According to NC Forest Ranger Justin Bennett, the far-reaching, low branches of the Elder Oak mean that it didn’t grow up in a forest. It’s most likely left behind from an old homesite and would have provided shade and refuge from the harsh weather. 

There’s an Icelandic philosopher and climate change activist named Andri Snaer Magnuson that we study in the “Sustainability in Action” course. He tries to expand our thinking about time by asking us to think of the oldest person that loves us. Think about their age (or what would be their age now). For me, it’s my great-grandmother; she was born in 1914 and would now be 110 years old. Before she died in 2015, she briefly met my little brother who is here today. If I live to her age, I will still be alive in 2106, and  in my latter years I might cross paths with a young person who will live to 2200. So the span of years that I can touch goes from 1914 to 2200! That is 286 years, comparable to the lifespan of this tree. We need to keep the future, even this far into it, in mind in order to live sustainably. 

Frankie leaning into trunk of Elder Oak

Recently the 9th graders in Ms. Bessias’ “Living Sustainably” course measured the Elder Oak and calculated the weight of the carbon dioxide that is sequestered in its canopy and root system. The answers they found ranged from 40-55 tons! For reference, if you recall from last year’s Sustain-In, DA emitted 3,789 tons of CO2 in 2022-23. 

The Elder Oak is the source of this year’s Sustain-In theme: 200 years in the past, 200 years into the future. What do you hope remains the same in 200 years? What do you hope is different? How can we bring about this change? 

Even after the Sustain-In, it’s important that we keep our questions and ideas flowing. It’s our job to imagine the kind of future we want for our students, our school, and our world.