From 1972 until the early 1980s, members of the Arbutus Lions Club took care of the Arbutus Oak, a 283-year-old white oak tree on a wooded knoll surrounded by loops of the Interstate 95 interchange with the Beltway.
After the Lions held a dedication ceremony at the oak and took it on as a club project, one of their members would pay and supervise neighborhood boys who would haul lawn mowers over a chain link fence and across the highway to reach the knoll and clear the area around the oak.
But the man who led the mower brigade died, leaving the Arbutus Lions without anyone young and fleet enough to head the cleanup effort, said Fritz Matthiesen, a 76-year-old club member. "We're a bunch of old fogies like me."
So the character of the project changed from the physical labor of tree maintenance to the politics of moving state government to take up what club members can no longer perform.
After years of frustrated advocacy on their own, the Lions recently enlisted the aid of state Sen. Nancy Murphy, D-Balto. Co., and gained promises, yet to be completely spelled out, from state agencies.
Matthiesen said he got a call yesterday from a Maryland Department of Natural Resources official who said a tree surgeon would diagnose the oak.
And Murphy, who wrote a letter to the department, said a state highway official recently promised to look into clearing the area around the tree and putting up a plaque.
Although the Arbutus Oak is not the only old tree in the state, Murphy says it's worth special attention "because it's the only one in Arbutus."
Earlier this week, Matthiesen climbed the knoll to revisit the neglect that has beset the Arbutus Oak.
The tree needs pruning. The plaque the Lions had posted seems to have been stolen. And the fence the Lions erected around the oak and once maintained with black paint has turned to a dull rust color. The yard inside is bursting with brush and brambles.
Through the lush undergrowth, visitors can barely see inside the fence to the faded 19th century tombstone bearing the name of Emanuel Wade, whose family once owned the land as part of a family farm. No one is buried beneath the tombstone. Someone planted it there, Matthiesen said, but he is stingy with any further details.
"Somebody stole it from his grave where he and his wife are buried," Matthiesen said. "But I don't want to say who put it there."
Details of the Arbutus Oak project have blurred in his memory as well. The best Matthiesen can remember, the Lions took an interest in the tree after workers building the highway interchange unearthed many Indian artifacts near the tree. A state forester told the Lions that the abundance of artifacts suggested that the tree might have been an early Indian meeting place, Matthiesen said.
Then-Gov. Marvin Mandel apparently agreed. Someone from his office landed in a helicopter at the site and promised to place Arbutus Oak historical markers on the highway, Matthiesen said. But the promise remains unkept, and the state has allowed other trees to grow up and obscure the view of the oak, which can be seen and approached only from the highway.
"It's a dirty rotten shame," Matthiesen said. "That tree is prettier than the Wye Oak, I'm convinced."
The Wye Oak of the Eastern Shore, which is estimated to be 440 years old, is the largest known white oak and the only officially designated tree of renown that the state maintains, said Walter S. Orlinsky, a special assistant to the state secretary of natural resources.
After getting Murphy's letter about the Arbutus Oak, Orlinsky said he would meet today with state highway officials to see what could be done. But he cautioned that it was one of a few hundred Maryland trees that have passed their bicentennial.
The state also designates "championship trees," such as the Wye Oak, for being the biggest of their species.
The state has no money now to care for all the old trees, said Orlinsky, who gives himself the informal title of "state tree czar." To remedy that, he is working on a plan that would amount to "a kind of Blue Cross/Blue Shield for our trees."
With private fund-raising, matched by state contributions, Orlinsky hopes to create a fund to subsidize the maintainance of special trees by offering to assume all costs after the landowner pays a $500 or $700 deductible.
But Matthiesen wants mowing and clearing and pruning of the Arbutus Oak to start sooner. In his mind, the project has taken on a life of its own, as something the Lions started and that the state should perpetuate.
Asked why the tree should be saved, Matthiesen said, "It could live a couple hundred more years."