URBANA — After news hit that the city of Urbana would remove one of its oldest and biggest trees, artists came out of the woodwork with ways to memorialize it.
One suggested making a bench from the giant hackberry, with a slice of the trunk for the back. The rings on it would mark historical events.
Another offered the idea of a botanical drawing of the tree, which is native to the prairie.
A mural painter, aka Walldog from Danville, wants to paint a portrait of the tree — either on a wall or canvas.
Inevitably, someone mentioned a chain-saw carving from the trunk. City Arborist Mike Brunk admits that's not his preference.
And a wood turner said he could make Christmas ornaments, pens, wands and other small items from the tree. They could be sold to raise money for the city's new Tree Legacy Program, which will honor living trees as well as the hackberry — posthumously.
"I've worked with artists before on projects but this is the first time artists have been pursuing me to get involved," Brunk said. "It's really been quite fun to listen to the ideas and see what people are coming up with."
Due to the interest, Brunk has set a Feb. 21 deadline for artists to submit proposals. The city's Tree Commission will evaluate them at its March 5 meeting.
While the artistic possibilities are limitless, the money for paying for a memorial is not, Brunk said.
"There are presently no dollars for the hackberry tree project so we will be soliciting donations to complete any chosen artwork ideas," he said.
And he wouldn't mind if the artists selected by the Tree Commission decide not to charge for their work.
Whatever art is selected, Brunk hopes it will be tied to the city's documentation of the hackberry, described as majestic by neighbors. It stands more than 110 feet tall, boasts a 5-foot trunk diameter and at 200 years of age, is the oldest tree in the city's residential areas.
Brunk also hopes the art could be displayed at a number of locations, among them the Anita Purves Nature Center in Urbana.
And, he expects to discover through the memorial project an artistic perspective that could be used to document the living trees that will become part of the Tree Legacy Program.
That program will honor old, rare, large and well-known trees in the city, one of 13 charter Tree City U.S.A. designees.
Brunk said it's important for interested artists to act now: Later this month the city will remove the hackberry at the northeast corner of Coler and High. The city plans to leave standing as much of the trunk as possible.
The health of the hackberry has declined since it was damaged in the 1990 ice storm. The city then used cables to preserve some of the upper branches.
Since then the hackberry has developed decay and rot; Brunk determined it was no longer safe to let it stand.
After the city marked the tree for removal, a neighbor noticed and told the city the public should be able to comment. More than 50 people showed up at the Tree Commission meeting last month to do that.
After Brunk showed aerial photos of the rot and decay, the Tree Commission voted to have the hackberry chopped down.
Ideas for the hackberry:
The Urbana Tree Commission received all sorts of suggestions for how to memorialize the area’s most famous hackberry tree. Among them:
— Leave a memorial plaque near a nicely finished, sloped stump so people can count the rings, thereby determining its age.
— Cast in Plexiglass (or another substance) the trunk and use it as a play log.
— Create a historical picture of the tree and couple it with prose or poetry written by a local writer or artist.
— Leave a tall trunk to allow people to interact with it.
— Create a history of the tree and tie it to local historical events.
— Do a 3-D scan of the hackberry. That was to have been done on Jan. 31, at no cost to the city, but has been tentatively rescheduled for Feb. 12.