On Historic Trees and Bearing Witness

On August 23, after standing tall for many years, a tree fell. Under normal circumstances it would be only of note to the occupants living beneath it. They would worry about repair, and fixing the damage, and about hauling away the excess wood for fire-wood to be recycled for some other common purposes. Not this tree.

“Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs,” she wrote on Feb. 23, 1944. “From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind.”

I’ve talked before about Anne Frank, and how her words made an impact on me when I was just a young girl, and continues to do so today. These are her words. This is her tree.

During my last year of graduate school I wrote these words about historic trees and American identity:

American’s connect to history through museums, artifacts owned by presidents, everyday objects, and even popular movies. Part of this experience involves the acknowledgment of the past through monuments and memorials—from simple plaques to great marble pillars often with physical inscriptions denoting a person or site as historic. In particular, there is one unusual monument to the American past—historic trees—which serve to connect the public to the past. These trees can be found intertwined with the natural landscape of a battlefield, a botanical garden, or lining the streets of a growing nation—and when threatened, their importance as identifying markers of the American experience comes to the forefront. They evoke the memory of famous men (and women), battles, and stood at attention as George Washington summoned his troops. Although these trees are not the singular in their role as monuments and memorials to the past, the shadows they cast when threatened and celebrated reflects an American expression of local and national identity—one deeply rooted in the surrounding historical landscape.

My research involved looking at newspaper clippings, mostly eulogies, on lost trees from the early 20th century, though I did include narratives on some present day discussions on historic trees– one of which was the infamous Connecticut Charter Oak. When it died after a great storm in 1856, the New York Times remarked how “proudly it stood, and when tottering with age and reduced to a mere shell of a few inches, by the steady inroads of time itself, it still clung with fondness to the loved spot on which it had witnessed the decay and downfall of many of its associates…” But this tree lived on–through seedlings, furniture, carvings from wood, a monument, pictorial representations on envelopes and, more recently, the Connecticut state quarter.  The linkages between the Connecticut Charter Oak, and the identity of the state solidified its importance to a pre-revolution period in history. (In short, when Britain decided to create the Dominion of New England in 1687, the colony fought back, hiding its charter within the mighty oak).

Witness Tree at Gettysburg National Battlefield Park (Source: Linda Neylon)
Witness Tree at Gettysburg National Battlefield Park (Source: Linda Neylon)

A more recent battle, and one that is perhaps a more fitting comparison to Anne’s magnificent chestnut, involves the Gettysburg Witness trees. A few years ago, some believed that some of the original trees form the Civil War would be torn down–they were not. However most of the language against the supposed destruction spoke of “bearing witness,” or “seeing things that no man alive had seen.”

The same applies for the tree we lost today. For some, as is depicted in the comments for this MSNBC.com article, the tree is a footnote, unimportant and lacking in meaning. For others it is filled with resonance–of a life lost too young, of a people forever changed. With the death of Miep Gies, there really is no human alive who knew and witnessed the lives of those families hiding in the attic. This tree, which inhaled and exhaled, was, in effect, the last living witness to their trials.

These arboreal monuments are all that is left of the past and so will always continue to be revered, honored, and lamented–not just in death, but also for the memories of the past that they invoke.

Robert Frost

Where my imaginary line
Bends square in woods, an iron spine
And pile of real rocks have been founded
And off this corner in the wild
Where these are driven in and piled,
One tree, by being deeply wounded,
Has been impressed as Witness Tree
And made commit to memory
My proof of being not unbounded.
Thus truth’s established and born out,
Though circumstanced with dark and doubt—
Though by a world of doubt surrounded.
The Moodie Forester

Source of quotation: The Diary of Anne Frank, via Washington Post.com article here. To see two other representations of the Charter Oak click here and here.

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