Rare trail marker tree planted at WashU

An oak tree that had guided Illinois travelers for nearly three centuries collapsed on April 20, 2008. Today, its spirit endures on the Washington University in St. Louis campus, maintaining an ancient practice of human connection with nature.

Born in northern Illinois around 1730, that fallen oak, known as “Pathfinder,” was among the last of the “trail marker trees.” Native American people bent these trees, usually red or white oaks, to point toward resources or significant locations. Pathfinder directed sojourners toward a creek crossing of the Sangamon River.

Soon after the tree’s collapse, oak expert and Starhill Forest Arboretum owner Guy Sternberg was on the scene, working to preserve Pathfinder’s legacy. He gathered scion wood (that is, tree cuttings) and then arranged for genetically identical clone trees to be grafted.