JDCF’s Biggest Tree Contest drew to a close on October 1, 2019. A great success, 126 trees were nominated from across Jo Daviess, Stephenson, and Carroll counties in northwest Illinois. The contest would not have been possible without two volunteers, Michele Brueggen and Pam Johnson, who spent hours in some unusual circumstances verifying tree measurement. We asked them to recount their inspiration for the contest, as well as some of their more memorable experiences out among the giants:
“Many of us have cherished memories of climbing trees as children and “escaping” from the world below into a tree haven, staying aloft for hours and savoring the sensory experience of being high in the air, at one with the birds and squirrels. I know I do and some of my fondest memories are of climbing trees on the way home from school, and of taking sack lunches along for a novel dining experience. Perhaps that’s where the seed of love for trees was originally planted. The inspiration for the contest grew through conversations with Jon Kelly, our regional arborist and owner of Mississippi Valley Tree Experts. Jon is a treasure trove of information, encouragement, and advice and we can’t thank him enough for his many contributions. What we didn’t know when we started the contest is how widespread the love of big trees is among people of all walks of life and ages. How wonderful to discover something that binds us so closely to each other and to these giant, historical, living monuments that cause us “to fall in love” over and over. It’s inspired us to consider further tree events and activities for JDCF,” said Michele Brueggen.
“Since big trees are often big because they are deep in timber or relatively isolated, we had many unforgettable ATV rides in steep terrain. My most memorable was on a 1948 tractor with no hand-holds and room only for the driver. I perched on the hitch behind Mr. Schubert, the 84 year old farmer who has used the tractor his entire life and remembers his father bringing it home brand new. The only way to hang on was to grab his belt with one hand and the rusty old tractor seat with the other. As we lurched and climbed, I swayed madly backwards and sideways, worrying that I would give the poor man a hernia. Or indigestion at the very least,” Michele concluded.
“It is hard to know when I really started to appreciate different trees and the experience of being in a forest. It might have been being able to wander by myself in the forest on an island in northern Minnesota when I was six years old. Sitting on the soft moss under the white pines and picking wildflowers gave me a sense of peace. When Michele Brueggen asked in 2016 if I would be interested in looking for and documenting Heritage trees in our area, I immediately said yes. We had so much fun exploring the area, watching the trees over the seasons and hearing stories from our neighbors that we wanted to share our experiences. So, in 2018 when JDCF wanted to do a program on oaks and forests, the idea of a Big Tree Contest became a reality,” explained Pam Johnson.
“We have seen how the community has supported the effort with over 120 entries in 27 species of native trees. We have ridden on the back of an all-terrain vehicle down to see a giant cottonwood and oaks. We stood under a giant white oak with branches touching the ground. We saw the bees on the flowers of the northern catalpa, slipped on the nuts of the black walnut, and enjoyed the fall color of the hickories. We smelled the fragrance of the basswood in flower. We marveled at the survival of some of the American elms and ash trees. We listened to stores of farmland residents who have been stewards of their land. We saw trees which define the city lot in which they reside,” said Pam. A list of winners can be found here: JDCF Biggest Tree Contest Winners .