Photo by Lee Pellegrini

A centuries-old oak tree on the edge of Boston College’s Brighton Campus will be removed this week due to failing health—but rather than disappear altogether, its trunk will undergo an unusual transformation. 

Ken Packie, a Massachusetts artist who specializes in wood sculptures, has been commissioned by the University to carve the tree’s nearly six-foot-wide base into a three-dimensional portrayal of the Holy Family, celebrating Boston College’s Jesuit Catholic heritage and recognizing the historical significance of the Brighton Campus.

The new sculpture will be visible from Commonwealth Avenue as motorists and pedestrians approach the McMullen Museum of Art. Those who continue into Newton will be treated to another of Packie’s creations: a marathon runner carved from a dying maple tree. 

For Landscape Planning Director Regina Bellavia, whose team maintains roughly 4,600 trees across the University’s three campuses, preserving the oak’s memory through art is a fitting tribute. She estimates the tree’s age to be around 200 years, making it older than the buildings and roadways surrounding it. 

“I could imagine, historically, before they cut Commonwealth Avenue through, there were probably many more of these oak trees, and this one happened to survive,” she said. “I’m grateful we were able to witness it for this long.”

Bellavia has been tracking the oak tree’s declining health for nearly a decade, consulting with arborists and taking steps to extend its longevity without risking the safety of people walking and driving nearby. Six years ago, the tree’s canopy was cut back significantly to reduce strain on its trunk, after a resistograph test revealed high levels of decaying wood. In the years since, Bellavia has noticed carpenter ants alongside the back of the tree, where the bark has long since fallen off. 

In November, a second arborist recommended that the tree be removed due to the “significant amount of dead trunk area and potential for future failure.” If it were to fall, the tree would crash directly into Commonwealth Avenue, posing a risk to cars, pedestrians, and subway riders. 

“No one ever wants to take down a tree this big, but they are living things so they have a lifespan,” said Bellavia. “We decided it was time.” 

The tree is scheduled for removal on Friday, April 23. During that time, one lane of traffic will be closed on the westbound side of Commonwealth Avenue and a temporary sidewalk will be erected for pedestrians. 

Once the canopy is removed, Packie will begin work transforming the trunk into a work of art. To create his pieces, many of which are inspired by nature, he uses only three tools: a chainsaw, chisel, and blowtorch. In a documentary about his work, Packie describes the joy he takes in watching his subjects emerge from wood. 

“It’s an evolution as the piece unfolds,” he said. “[I’m] taking something that was alive and giving it a second life in a different form.”

—Alix Hackett | University Communications | April 2021