The catalpa tree by Benson Auditorium has been a beloved staple on campus for several decades. On May 19, the tree split in half, yet, in a peculiar turn of events, the tree continues to stand. According to Harding groundskeeper Joe Burton, the catalpa split from natural causes and remains in perfect health.
“It started diverting root resources years ago,” Burton said. “It was a very gradual process, and that’s why it’s growing so vibrantly on both sides.”
As soon as the tree split, conversations about saving it began. Burton said the early stages involved getting permission from the director of physical resources, Danny DeRamus, who decided the crew should add support beams for the tree to rest on. Burton said the crew hopes the tree will start rooting where it contacts the ground, creating a living archway.
Next steps involved cutting back the catalpa’s heavier, more potentially damaging parts and ensuring the space would be safe for emergency personnel, as well as testing the accessibility for students walking and riding their bikes along the path.
Burton said in the beginning stages, the crew collected seeds and cuttings from the tree and used them to start around 30 new catalpas, which are all growing vibrantly and can replace the parent tree if anything happens. The crew also plans to plant some of these trees around campus.
Junior Baraka Iboo was one of the students on the grounds crew who helped propagate and care for these baby catalpas over the summer. Iboo worked on a farm at home in Tanzania before coming to Harding, and this experience working with the grounds crew has given him an opportunity to expand his skills and learn more about agriculture. Iboo said part of Burton’s decision to save the tree was its history on campus, so it was exciting for Iboo to be a part of preserving it.
“There are some people who really love it because it has been there since they were kids and now they’re in their 70s, in their 80s, and the tree is still there, so [Burton] wanted to save it,” Iboo said. “It was a great experience because I wasn’t expecting it to stay alive, so once after a while, I saw the tree was not going to die, I was really excited about that.”
Additionally, the crew has several projects planned for the area, including improving drainage and creating flower beds. Burton said he hopes the location will become a place for students to spend time, especially with its proximity to the Student Center.
“This is a kind of iconic tree,” Burton said. “And I think it’s going to continue to be iconic now. I mean, this is really going to be cool to be able to lounge in or do devos or…get under the shade and read your book.”
One person was already using the catalpa for reading before the tree fell — two days before, in fact. Professor of English language and literature Dr. Larry Hunt was on campus teaching an intersession class when he felt moved to read under the tree.
“I’d never read under it because I always felt like I would be on display…since it’s like a hub of people walking,” Hunt said. “But it was summer, and nobody was here, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna go read under the tree.’”
While Hunt was sitting under the catalpa, one of the blossoms fell into the middle of his book, prompting him to save the blossom. When he finished reading, he said he felt moved to thank God, and the tree, for the experience.
These circumstances repeated for Hunt the next day, from the blossom falling into his book to thanking the tree afterward. The following day, the tree split. Though Hunt was happy to learn the catalpa had survived, he was left to wonder about the meaning behind these events.
“I hope what this means is that God answered my prayer and transformed it into this really cool living arch,” Hunt said. “I mean, I don’t know, he hasn’t told me, but it was just a really cool, very strange experience.”
Burton has also found a spiritual aspect in the new life of this catalpa tree.
“To me, this is just another opportunity to look for spiritual answers to human problems,” Burton said. “It’s basically two trees that hopefully, in this season of its life, just look cool and are like a living piece of art for years to come.”