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Ann Arbor 200

Branching Narratives: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Tappan Oak

When: 2024

In this short documentary, filmmaker Jen Proctor tells the story of the Tappan Oak, a tree that predated white settlement in Ann Arbor and the campus that grew up around it, and the human actions that marked its last decades of life.

From Filmmaker Jen Proctor:

Trees are one of our world’s most mysterious and ineffable beings. They inspire wonder, wreak destruction, and live longer than our mortal human minds can fully fathom. They bear quiet witness to the subtle changes and rapid evolution of the environment around them, recording wet winters and dry summers, lightning strikes and bug infestations, air pollution and scars inflicted by people seeking to mark their place on this earth. 

German writer and poet, Herman Hesse, captures the remarkable ability of trees to record history in his book Wandering: Notes and Sketches.

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”

When the University of Michigan’s Tappan Oak - an ancient, wizened tree named for the university’s first president in 1858 - came down in 2021, it revealed the stories it had recorded in its 350 years of life. 

As Hesse describes,

“When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured…

…A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”

I was drawn to the stories that branch out from the Tappan Oak because of their connection to a longing for home. The stories contained in this film, fundamentally, are about a need to belong, to put roots down, to finally find sanctuary in being nothing but what we are.  

This film represents both singular and collective stories. A lone undergraduate student communes with a tree to help him feel connected to a college campus from which he felt alienated. A professor collaborates with students to create a sense of belonging to Michigan’s natural environment. A society of students fosters belonging by performing a ritual around the tree to induct members into their community. In creating belonging for a select few, however, the society excludes and demeans others who similarly seek to belong. An activist collective responds by effecting change over decades to create spaces for belonging for all people on the campus.

All of these stories bear a relationship to the great oak, an unwitting but central figure in their narratives.

A final word from Hesse:

“In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.”

Like trees, these stories share the desire for their subjects to “fulfill themselves according to their own laws,” to feel as at home on campus as the Tappan Oak did, and to create that feeling of home for future generations.



  • [00:00:47] Mike Rutkofske: [MUSIC] It was huge, 352" in diameter and about 65 feet tall. We estimated it's about 350 years old. It was a large baroque Quercus macrocarpa. This one happened to be on the west side of Hatcher graduate library, and it pretty much anchored that side of the building. This tree was important because it gives that feel of a college campus. It gave students something to sit under in the summertime and it was just a really majestic tree. [MUSIC]
  • [00:01:32] Bethany Hughes: Michigamua was an undergraduate student organization that was a secret honor society, although how secretive it was really varied over the course of its history. It took for its name, Michigamua, which is essentially a made up term. All of the members were given what you would call Indian names and these are joke, stereotypical names. They would identify themselves as the fighting braves of Michigamua. The headquarters, which was in the Union for decades was decorated, they say, like a wigwam. They attached themselves to an idea of this is sort of stereotypical Indian as a way of, like many things in U.S. culture, particularly sports, identifying themselves with the characteristics that they felt were admirable. But as far as interactions with actual Michigan tribal entities or Native American organizations, that's not something that they were invested in or didn't even seem interested in. It was a pretty elite group that developed over time and created its own community and culture. For most of its history, it was only males were initiated. The Tappan Oak becomes this very public place where these elite members of the community are selected and publicly shown to be becoming part of Michigamua. Initiates were stripped, so they would be shirtless. They were led around campus to various places. One of these was the Tappan Oak, where then they were tied around the oak. They have covered their body in some sort of red paint and sometimes there's essentially authority figures from the university there all gathered around the Tappan Oak to watch people get painted red and become "braves". [MUSIC] It started falling apart in the 1970s when Native Americans became more active and more vocal. It lasted until about 2007, when it was reorganized and rebranded as Order of Angell, and then in the winter semester of 2021, they publicly announced they would not be initiating anyone else. There are ways that Native American student activism and the Native American Student Association are very clearly linked to the very slow dismantling of Indian-ness and Michigamua as Michigamua. But it's not something that they could have done by themselves so it was very much a movement in solidarity and an ally ship with a lot of other campus organizations, student organizations, social pressure, all of these things. There are definitely people within the native alumni community that feel that the tree as a living entity was traumatized or was harmed. In being forced to participate in this dehumanizing process, is that something that can be healed? Can that plant's life be healed from being forced to dismantle the good relations that we want to have with all living things and our space in our environment? [MUSIC]
  • [00:05:11] Mike Rutkofske: It was a tough decision to make to remove this tree because outwardly, it looked fairly healthy. But approximately 2019, we were noticing fungal fruiting bodies appearing at the base of the tree which is usually an indicator of decay. It did have what appeared to be a large lightning strike wound. That's just an avenue for decay to enter the tree, and we just deemed the risk was too high to let it stand. I've spent a lot of time observing, monitoring, caring for that tree. It may sound silly, but I do have a connection to all the trees on campus, and trees are a big part of the community and especially one that significant, it was going to make a big hole in that space so that was a tough to.
  • [00:06:16] Joe Trumpey: [MUSIC] I've had a long term relationship with campus forester to re-purpose campus logs that have come down either because of wind damage or disease and have been using that material in student projects for many years now. After Campus Forestry took down the oak, they had to cut the tree up into manageable logs and then they were shipped out to my personal farm where I have a saw mill, and students were able to come out to my farm and load the logs under the sawmill and cut the logs into boards which is always an exciting thing. I'm always happy to see students mill because they get so excited. This furniture that we're sitting on here as part of this Sustainable Dye and Materials Garden at the Stamps School. It's rustic partly because of the time frame of the class but it's also rustic by design intent to acknowledge that the oak is still there to be able to see the edges and understand the heaviness of it. The pieces are cut very thick and heavy to mimic a log or a chunk of tree. It definitely looks like it feels like chunks of tree. But part of my brain is also saying, there's all these trees are special and for a student to honor, for all of us to honor that living thing and how we put it into human service is a really important mental exercise, as well as a physical exercise in the act of creation. [MUSIC]
  • [00:07:56] Chayce Griffith: I felt like all I did was work on school work, and that was it. I didn't feel like I knew anybody. I felt like every time I showed up to classes on campus, I was holding my breath waiting to leave again. I spent time walking around during one particularly cold, nasty winter in 2013. I just saw all these acorns sitting at the base of this gigantic tree and I thought, it would be so cool to be able to grow a tree that big. I liked the fact that it was something monumental and huge and historic, like things are on the campus that I could actually take with me because I didn't necessary feel like I belonged there so yes, I collected the acorns and I looked like a maniac but I was just like, so far past caring because I wasn't doing well in classes, I didn't know anybody anyway, I'm like, I don't care what anybody thinks at this point, and I just shoveled acorns into my backpack. Each one of them got like, their own styrofoam cup and I put dirt in it, and then I put them in the refrigerator in the garage. But eventually, you have to move them into the yard and I had my grandmother's big plastic watering can with me that I filled up, and I dug it up with the trowel and I put the tree in and you just soak it. Not a ton you can do after that. I read an article but it didn't really connect with me. I was like, oh, there was a huge tree on campus that they had to cut down. Then a friend of mine who had worked at the university at the time he was like, dude, they cut down that huge oak tree that you liked. I went back to the article and I was like, you have got to be kidding me, that is the same tree.
  • [00:09:35] Mike Rutkofske: Our administrative assistant basically said, I think you need to hear this, my jaw dropped. But he just out of his own conviction, just wanted to see if he could do something with this tree and then hold them to hold. He's got two saplings still growing at his parent's house.
  • [00:09:53] Chayce Griffith: I just thought the university was even like, oh, that's cute. Maybe, can you take a picture of it and send it to us? But he said, okay, we were thinking that it might be nice to actually take that tree and plant it on campus. I was like, Wow. I remember walking around campus constantly walking around and reading plaques so I was like, the only thing I want is if there could be a plaque that says like, donated by Chayce the year that I graduated. I remember Mike taking a breath and going. I think for this, we can definitely make an exception.
  • [00:10:27] Bethany Hughes: [MUSIC] I'm really intrigued about what it would mean to replant the Tappan Oak and what does that look like when you create a relationship with a plant and you want it to be a different relationship. If it was me, I would invite Native alumni and community members to establish relationship with this tree. That's the thing about recognizing the tree as a living creature and about committing to a relationship that cares for the tree and that respects what the tree offers the community. The Native students have an ongoing relationship with the Tappan Oak. [MUSIC]
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Length: 00:12:00

Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)

Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library


American Cultures
Ann Arbor
Local Business
Local History
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Nature & Outdoors
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Mike Rutkofske
Bethany Hughes
Chayce Griffith
Joe Trumpey
Ann Arbor 200