These are the branches that reached out and drew us in, embracing us with their captivating canopy of both welcoming comfort and mysterious promise. These are the trunks that stood strong and supported us, providing something to lean on while we stretched our minds and our perspective. These are the roots that gave us foundation, nourishing us with experiences and feeding us with memories that we will carry forever.
As the stalwart representatives of the College of Charleston experience for generations, the oaks in the Cistern Yard are a part of us all.
And so, when one of those beloved trees uprooted itself, ripping from the soil and crashing to the ground – its trunk crushing the fence, its branches splaying out across George Street onto Glebe – the impact reverberated through the hearts of CofC alumni everywhere.
It was a quiet, sunny day in July. The sidewalks and streets were fortuitously empty at the moment the tree in the southwest corner of the Cistern Yard took its fall, wiping out an oak on George Street in its wake. The campus shuddered with the jolt of the news, sending waves of shock onto social media almost immediately.
“As soon as I saw it on Twitter, my first reaction was how incredibly sad it was, and that it’d be cool if some of it could be kept to use in some commemorative way,” says Geoff Yost ’12, who jumped into action to get some of the tree set aside.
His first call was to Katie Kozar Thompson ’09, a jewelry designer who works primarily with wood and who is married to a woodworker and furniture designer.
“I knew she was the perfect person to get access to the wood,” says Yost, whose next call was to Ann Looper Pryor ’83, vice president of alumni affairs, who agreed to take immediate measures to save some of the wood.
“I really credit Geoff and Katie for their incredibly quick reaction and plan to save the wood,” says Pryor, noting that the alumni response on social media confirmed Yost’s gut reaction: “There were hundreds of emails and social media comments, and everyone wanted a piece of the tree. Everyone wanted to know what was going to happen to it.”
What happened was this: Four logs weighing more than 500 pounds each were hauled off to the Thompsons’ kiln in West Ashley to be dried out – a process that takes about three months.
“It was a massive tree, and we have a lot of material to work with,” says Thompson. “Oak has a very distinctive grain – it’ll make some beautiful products.”
What those products will be has yet to be determined.
“There are so many possibilities,” says Pryor. “We’ll probably end up with a variety of commemorative items to appeal to all tastes.”
“Regardless of how it’s packaged, we want the significance to be in the wood, so that there’s meaning there for everyone,” says Yost. “Everyone has their own memories under those trees, and the stories are very personal to the individual. This is an opportunity to root out those stories and honor them, whatever they may be.”
One thing is sure: Proceeds from item sales will go toward scholarships.
“It’s a way to celebrate the College of Charleston and all that it has given us – and give back at the same time,” says Thompson, noting how committed the College’s alumni are to the Cistern Yard. “It’s a magical place – every student has memories under those trees. It’s near and dear to every alum’s heart. That’s why we wanted to save it and honor it.”
“The trees on the Cistern are important to everyone who has attended the College,” agrees Pryor. “These trees witnessed our first and last moments as students and hold a special place in our hearts. Whenever alumni visit campus, we always find ourselves drawn to the Cistern Yard. It’s a very emotional place for all of us.”
The alumni’s outpouring of emotion on social media is proof enough: The College’s Facebook post regarding the incident saw 190,780 impressions, and its Twitter post got 11,891 impressions. In the meantime, Yost – a partner and graphic designer at Charleston digital branding studio Annex – was also making an impression online. He’d altered the College’s logo to depict the fallen tree, and, when he posted it on Twitter, it spread like wildfire.
“My phone started doing this little dance, vibrating across the table,” he laughs, adding that 7,000 people saw that tweet and there were 57 retweets, including tweets from the College of Charleston’s and the Alumni Association’s handles. “Everybody thought it was a hilarious symbol of the College and recognized that it was coming from a place of love. There were comments like, ‘This is why we love the College – it’s a place that facilitates creativity in good times and bad.’ It’s an easy thing to appreciate, and it brought people back to the memories of the Cistern Yard and connected them in a humorous way. I’m glad I could remind people of that connection.”
The trees of the Cistern Yard have witnessed generations of growth – providing gentle refuge as we learn to stand up tall, stay grounded and stretch ourselves further than we thought we could go. And as we move through life, we carry a piece of them with us.
As Yost concludes, “There’s a part of all of us in those trees, and a part of them is still in all of us.”
Not even the loss of a tree can take that away. That connection never dies.