'That Tree" was made famous by photographer Mark Hirsch. (Photo by Mark Hirsch)
'That Tree" was made famous by photographer Mark Hirsch. (Photo by Mark Hirsch)

Mark Hirsch, whose photographs made it famous, reflects on his connection with a 160-year-old friend.

Monday’s derecho was still howling when Mark Hirsch made it out to Airport Road in Platteville to check on “That Tree.”

What he saw broke his heart.

The ancient Burr Oak, which stood like a sentinel on the edge of a cornfield, had been ripped apart by the 80 mile-per-hour winds that swept through Grant County. It was an end Hirsch never envisioned, as he leaned with his cheek on her gnarly bark, saying a tearful farewell to a fallen friend.

“She was just reduced to rubble in the field,’’ he said. “It was a torrential downpour, and I’m resting my head against her trunk. She taught me that life is beautiful but tenuous. You might not have another tomorrow. So tell the people you love that you love them today.”

Hirsch isn’t alone in mourning her loss. “That Tree” has more than 40,000 followers on Facebook and her obituary was shared almost 1,000 times in less than a day. 

Hirsch was on the phone all day after the storm, talking to arborists and tree lovers from around the world, who had attended his talks and bought his photo book of a year of “That Tree” photos.

“‘That Tree’ has brought so many wonderful people into my life,’’ he said. “I’m grateful to have people in my life who really understand what matters. It helps.”

In many ways, Hirsch said, “That Tree’’ helped save his life. He’s had, by any standards, a terrible decade: Losing his job as a news photographer, getting divorced, living through a near fatal car crash, and dealing with recurrent prostate cancer.

“My friendship with ‘That Tree’ all evolved from that car accident. She inspired me to have this incredible journey,” Hirsch told UpNorthNews. “My career became communicating about trees. Whole fragility of life. The things I get anxious and wound up about. It was the wisdom of the tree, the people she introduced me to.” 

Hirsch, in turn, made “That Tree” probably the most famous oak tree in Wisconsin, if not the world. 

Two unrelated things in 2012 brought Hirsch, a professional photographer, to the oak tree. One was the auto accident that nearly killed him. The second was his first iPhone, which he bought while he was rehabbing from the accident.

Hirsch makes his living with much fancier equipment, and says he didn’t buy the phone for its camera. Still, he was interested to see what it could do. The first photo he took was of “That Tree,” which is a mile from his former home and a landmark he drove past everyday for 19 years without thinking much about it.

That tree grew from a single photo to a fixation.

Every day for a year, in frigid February and steamy June alike, he ventured to “That Tree,’’ and made a single image with his iPhone. The images built one on another. He posted them to his Facebook page, and “That Tree” began drawing fans. After making 365 photos, “That Tree” became a coffee table book full of photos celebrating a year in the life of a small corner of rural Wisconsin.

Hirsch and “That Tree,” were profiled by CBS Sunday Morning, National Public Radio, The Huffington Post, NBC News, The Daily Mail (UK), The Guardian, and The Sierra Club, to name just a few. It led him to “artist-in-residence” gigs, teaching kids how to see and photograph with their phones, and to speaking at international arborist conventions.

But most important, the tree helped him heal, from the accident, the job loss, the divorce, and from prostate cancer, which he and his twin, Jon, were both diagnosed with in 2013.

Hirsch says he won’t photograph “That Tree” in her current state of distress. He prefers to remember her as he last photographed in late June, standing tall with a midsummer sunset outlining her proud silhouette.

“That Tree” is at least 160 years old, and quite possibly 200, according to a core sample analysis done at UW-Platteville. One of the “grief-filled conversations” Hirsch had on Tuesday was with Andy Dahl, the University of Iowa arborist, who gathered acorns from “That Tree” in 2017, the last time she produced them. 

“He told me he still has some seedlings from her,’’ said Hirsch, who is thinking of planting seedlings later this summer as a memorial to the tree that had given him so much. “I can’t see making furniture from her, she was a living, breathing being and that wouldn’t be right.”