Peter Wu, Elizabeth Butler's partner, stands with the fallen oak.
Peter Wu, Elizabeth Butler’s partner, stands with the fallen oak.
(Via Laura Leroy)
Opinion from Community Voices

As a 400-year-oak falls, remembering fallen Santa Cruz police officer Elizabeth Butler

Elizabeth Butler was the first female Santa Cruz police officer killed in the line of duty. On the 10-year anniversary of her tragic death, a massive 400-year-old oak tree fell at her family home.

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The most exquisite oak tree fell in our neighborhood in February. The oldest tree on Sims Road.

This 400-year oak fell on the 10-year anniversary of the death of our neighbor, fallen Santa Cruz Police Detective Elizabeth Butler, who died Feb. 23, 2013, while investigating a case on Branciforte Avenue. Elizabeth, 38, was the first female Santa Cruz police officer killed in the line of duty. She was a detective who excelled at interviewing.

This tree was growing on her family’s property. Our homes, our families and lives have interfaced quite closely over the years. I am still saddened by the loss of my friend and, now, by the loss of this extraordinary native oak tree.

I am reminded of Elizabeth when I greet her two young, and growing up, sons, Stellan and Joaquin, who were just 2 and 5 when she was killed. We often share warm pecan-cherry scones, fresh-baked bread or bags of citrus from the boys’ lemon tree. I remember Elizabeth planting these citrus trees when her boys were toddling around her in the garden. Every year, I weed around the young trees so the citrus will be vibrant and healthy. They produce fragrant flowers and juicy fruit.

Elizabeth’s children are growing up elegant and strong. Although I know they miss her.

The tree’s life ended while the wild calla lilies below it were in full bloom. The tree took great care in not bringing harm to anyone. Her massive anthropomorphic trunk lay in a field of beautiful flowers, magnolias and calla lilies.

How do you measure the life of a tree?

Some say you count the internal rings. Some say you measure the circumference and divide this by pi. Both will give you the age of the tree in years. No matter what age of the oak, there is a vast ecosystem of life and creatures that coexist below the canopy of these ancient beauties.

The February afternoon when the tree fell there was a cacophony of bird sounds. The birds sang out, warning or redirecting the inhabitants of the fallen tree. This oak tree was a habitat to many creatures — to a variety of birds, bats, opossums, great horned owls, squirrels, butterflies, hundreds of moths, insects, mosses and lichens.

This oak provided a diverse web of life above and below ground.

We have lived under the majestic canopy of this oak for 20 years.

There are younger oaks surrounding our home that have grown from the acorns of the fallen mother tree. They are more visible now because the view has opened up to showcase the surrounding younger trees. We will miss the majestic oak that provided shade, beauty and protected our little neighborhood. We honor and appreciate the trees still with us, knowing that there is a tapestry of roots and mycorrhizal life connecting all the surrounding plants and trees.

Would the tree share the sorrowful days after Elizabeth Butler’s death? The entourage of police vehicles taking her longtime partner, Peter, Grandma Louise and the children to the funeral and memorial? The many devastated and concerned neighbors bringing comfort food and condolence cards?

We have witnessed only a brief moment in the life of this oak.

This tree started growing when the Ohlone people lived and thrived in this region. I can imagine the beauty of the rolling hills, the native grasslands, the clear freshwater streams and the splendid, wild, natural landscape.

Our neighborhood is next to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, directly between Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley. Felicia Van Stolk, the executive director at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, told us, “The oldest known village site in California was found near Scotts Valley.”

I can imagine the Native peoples of Santa Cruz coexisting in this natural, abundant landscape and place. It’s beautiful with the surrounding old-growth forest and views of the ocean.

I have been enchanted with oak trees for many years. Perhaps from living under their grand influence for so long in Santa Cruz. I have observed the trees in my neighborhood and have watched how they have grown and changed with the seasons.

Often when I travel out of California, I am drawn to the trees of other lands. I have traveled to New Orleans to view and discover the beauty of the southern oaks.

They are quite different from our California live oaks. They are older, larger and also majestic.

In the South, the trees are laden with Spanish moss that thrives in the humid environment. It makes them appear almost haunted.

This particular year, I was traveling with my sister. She took me to all the historical landmarks of New Orleans. We devoured warm beignets and sipped coffee at Cafe Du Monde, in the French Quarter. We visited Congo Square and sauntered down Bourbon Street. We came to the City of Jazz for the legendary Jazz & Heritage Festival that happens every spring.

I biked solo to all the parks in New Orleans to stand in the presence of the trees.

They have names like the Mother Tree, the Singing Tree and the Tree of Life. These trees are between 300 and 500 years old. These Southern oaks have been growing when the native inhabitants of New Orleans were living among them. The Choctaw, Chitimacha, Tunica-Biloxi and Caddo tribes. These ancient oaks have nourished and protected the early inhabitants.

Today these hardy oaks have provided safety and shelter from the devastation of recent storms, hurricanes and the effects of climate change.

When I arrived at each tree, I would lie under the canopy and look up and absorb the beauty. In the middle of New Orleans City Park, I found the Singing Tree. This oak has huge wind chimes hanging from its branches. The chimes are tuned to the five-tone pentatonic scale. In the distance, across the street, I could hear Trombone Shorty playing with the Orleans Avenue Band. The sounds of the saxophone and trumpet sounded right in tune with the chimes of the singing tree. The melodious sounds chimed through the park and mixed with the warm, sultry air of New Orleans.

I think trees help us tell our stories. They are grounded and deeply rooted into the earth. They are adaptable and forgiving. A great metaphor for us humans.

If our heritage oak tree, on Sims Road, could have shared stories of the life swirling around her, what would she share? Perhaps stories of love, life, devastating fires, evacuation orders and returns, of miracles, owl mating calls, bird songs and new beginnings.

Loran "Butch" Baker and Elizabeth Butler, Santa Cruz police officers killed in the line of duty in 2013.
(Via Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

Would the tree share the sorrowful days after Elizabeth Butler’s death?

The entourage of police vehicles taking her longtime partner, Peter, Grandma Louise and the children to the funeral and memorial? The many devastated and concerned neighbors bringing comfort food and condolence cards? This extraordinary oak tree provided a canopy of beauty and an unseen embrace of love and empathy. The tree’s majestic presence was felt by the entire neighborhood on Sims Road.

I still miss the presence of the vast, protective gift that our neighborhood tree bestowed.

With the heritage oak now gone, the sun shines through with more warmth and radiance, changing the light on our little neighborhood. We can see more of the sun setting in the west.

The younger oaks are now more visible through the gap of where the ancient oak stood. The calla lilies are still blooming and the magnolia tree offers big, white fragrant flowers.

As I write this, Peter and Elizabeth’s younger son, Stellan, just brought over a basket of delicious strawberries. A gift from his family.

I think we are all connected, just like the tapestry of life of the oak tree. We are resilient and strong. We bend with the breeze and share homegrown fruits with our wonderful neighbors on Sims Road.

Laura Leroy is a dancer, world traveler, clothing designer, quilter, chef, gardener and a beginning writer. She loves reading and hiking the wild lands of the world. She is known to be seen hugging trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and sometimes she even talks to them. Her sun sign is Capricorn, Aries rising with an Aquarius moon.