This Old Tree with Doug Still
Chronicling a Tree: Thoreau’s Concord Elm
Season 1, Episode 3
Published October 14, 2022
Doug Still: 0:00
The place is Concord Massachusetts, the year 1856. At 10am on a January day, four men began removing a huge American elm tree trunk using block and tackle, and ropes drawn by a horse. The upper branches had been removed a few days before. Prior to this, the tree along the main road was seemingly healthy, and was a village marker seen by everyone passing through the old colonial town. The tree towered above a house owned by Mr. And Mrs. Charles B. Davis. But they heard some creaking and a storm that winter and said one of the branches was cracked. They were fearful and wanted it down.
The event would have been long forgotten, except one of America's greatest writers and earliest environmentalists also lived in Concord, Henry David Thoreau. The removal of the stately elm set him off, at least in a flurry of journal writing. Today's episode is about why the tree was such a touchstone for him. And more broadly, why the American LM was so important to the character of New England towns in the 19th century, and ultimately streetscapes across the country to the present day.
I have a wide ranging discussion about it with my guest, Thomas Campanella, Professor and Historian at Cornell University, who wrote the fascinating book, Republic of Shade, New England and the American Elm. It turns out, elm trees helped define our young nation's sense of itself. Real or constructed, you can decide for yourself. Thanks for joining me today. I'm your host, Doug Still, and welcome to This Old Tree.
This Old Tree theme song - Dee Lee: 1:39
This old tree, standing here for more than four centuries. I wonder what you'd say if you could talk to me....
Doug Still: 1:51
If you're listening to this podcast, you're a tree lover. So speaking for most of us, we've all felt those feelings of loss that Thoreau felt that day in January, 1856. Perhaps you once heard the buzzing of chainsaws near your home to find out that a neighbor has taken down a mature oak tree say, or maybe a developer cleared all the trees from an entire lot in order to build a house and couldn't bother to save even the biggest. Or in the name of progress, a road project bludgeoned its way through the roots of a grand old street tree, leading to its demise with the explanation that, "It couldn't be saved." Maybe some of the reasons were good, maybe not. But there was no mistaking that feeling in your gut of irrevocable loss of both an honorable life and the repository of fond memories. Believe me, as City Forester I've experienced firsthand the raw emotions of residents spurred by the removal of trees young and old.
Thoreau had published Walden just a few years before, the work for which he is best known. It is a memoir of living alone on nearby Walden Pond for two years, a celebration of nature and simple living. It had precise measurement and observation of his natural surroundings, and described a great appreciation for the rhythms of life we take for granted. A transcendentalist, Thoreau wove a spiritual dimension throughout the book with reflections on solitude and meditation. But Thoreau's writing also offered some bite toward materialistic contemporary culture, and the foolishness of some of his peers, especially politicians.
The removal of the Concord elm tree brought out his cranky side, brilliant and intellectual, but cranky nonetheless. After describing the takedown in great detail and taking measurements of the old friend, he said that if the town clerk wouldn't chronicle the tree's fall, then he would. For, "It is of greater moment to the town than that of many a human inhabitant would be. Instead of erecting a monument to it, we take all possible pains to obliterate it's stump, the only monument of a tree which is commonly allowed to stand." He claims to have eulogized the tree, but it seems to me that a sort of pissed off sourness was just below the surface. He wrote, "I've attended the felling and, so to speak, the funeral of this old citizen of the town, I who commonly do not attend funerals, as it became me to do so. I was the chief if not the only mourner there. I've taken the measure of his grandeur, have spoken a few words of eulogy at his grave, but there were only the choppers and the passers by to hear me.
Further, the town was not represented. The fathers of the town, the selectmen, the clergy, were not there. But I have not known a fitter occasion for a sermon of late, since it's kindred could not attend. I attended." I'm paraphrasing different parts, but he goes on that "Me thinks it's fall marks an epic in the history of the town. It is passed away together with a clergy of the old school and the stagecoach which used to rattle beneath it. Its virtue was that it steadily grew and expanded from year to year to the very last. How much of Old Concord falls with it. Another link that bound us to the past has been broken." [Music]
I had the privilege of talking about all this with Tom Campanella. Because this old tree in Concord was an American elm, I learned that its loss was charged with symbolism that reached into our national identity.
Doug Still: 5:30
Tom Campanella is Professor of History and Regional Planning at Cornell University, and he has written extensively about the history of American urbanism and landscape, especially in New York City and in particular, Brooklyn. He's also written about urbanism and city planning in China and the rapid growth happening there. But what brings Tom to us today is his work on the cultural importance of the American Elm in American history, especially in New England. You wrote a book in 2003, called Republic of Shade, New England and the American Elm, which won the Spiro Kostof Award from the Society for Architectural Historians. Tom, welcome to the show.
Thomas Campanella: 6:11
Doug Still: 6:12
I'm so happy to have you here today. I loved your book on the American Elm. It's a great read for anyone who loves trees and history such as myself, and I learned a lot about why this tree holds such an esteemed place within the greater pantheon of trees, and also because it helped define an image of the quintessential American town or streetscape [yes, exactly] in real terms, but also within our memory and psyche.
So we're going to come back to that in a minute. [Sure] But I'd love to start by talking about one story in particular, that you wrote about an American Elm in Concord, Massachusetts, and the year is 1856. And this was a huge, gorgeous elm tree that stood over the house of Charles B. Davis, who ran the post office and was a storekeeper, apparently. And it was known by everyone, especially the great American nature writer, Henry David Thoreau, and he wrote about this tree and I would love to ask you, if you wouldn't mind describing what happened and why he wrote about this tree?
Thomas Campanella: 7:32
Well, first of all, it's a testament to Thoreau's wonderful capacity to appreciate even the quotidian, you know, and they every day. Aside from trees, which are I always have felt that they tend to be very invisible to most people. It's remarkable to me how, you know, we pay attention to almost every detail and minutiae about the built environment, and yet somehow, trees have long evaded our attention. And so to come across a Thorough who vests so much meaning and significance in trees is just such a joy. And this tree in particular, to be honest, it is not a tree like the Weathersfield Elm, which was, maybe twelve feet in diameter. It's a relatively young American Elm. By his measure, quite literally, it was 125-127 years old. And of course, he is an inveterate tree ring counter, he counts tree rings, the way he plumbed the depths of Walden Pond. And he writes about how ignorance is so sticky and persistent in that, you know, people would, you know, many townspeople in Concord continued to believe that Walden Pond had no bottom that it was limitless in depth and or was, you know, many fathoms deep. And all he did was go out in a rowboat and plumb the depths and he came up with a number to prove that they were all being superstitious and ignorant. And the same thing about this elm, which some people thought was 200 years old, and others thought it was only 50 years old or something like that.
Doug Still: 9:28
He was like, just count the rings.
Thomas Campanella: 9:29
He counts the rings, right? And he comes up with a number and 127 years is not really that old for a tree like an American elm, right? Some of the great New England elms that I came across in the research for Republic of Shade were much older than that - twice, maybe even three times that age. And there are still not many, but there are still some elms in New England that can claim to be a couple hundred years old. There was one on the outskirts of Hartford within sight of the airport there - I forget the name of the airfield - that must have been about 200-250 years old. I don't know if it's still there. But anyway, this tree this elm that Thoreau talks about is not that I think he says . It's 15 feet in circumference, which is only maybe a four foot diameter breast height tree, right? That's big, but it's not a monster. It's certainly not one of the great really big elms in New England at that time. And yet he mourns it and appropriately so.
Doug Still: 10:36
So this tree came down.
Thomas Campanella: 10:38
Yes, it's cut down because and this is something you know that I've encountered myself so many times, regrettably. You know, it was a threat you know? It's you know [air quotes] being you know, some creaking sounds, ominous sounds were heard, which I think quite dubious. But anyway I take it it was the homeowner who was afraid that it might come down on the house,
Doug Still: 11:06
He thought it was a little dubious as well the way it…
Thomas Campanella: 11:09
Yeah, I mean it was, I mean trees creak. I mean, they make noises, they're living entities. When the wind blows through you know, a tree obviously creaks, you know, I think Emerson wrote about the horse concert quote unquote, that tree limbs, brushing against the roof would make in the wind. But anyway, the tree came down.
Doug Still: 11:34
And so, it's in full leaf. I mean, it looks healthy and there's a creak.
Thomas Campanella: 11:40
Yeah, and it probably was a perfectly healthy tree. It shows that when someone, you know I've had people say this to me they you know, the tree is near their house and even if it fell, it wouldn't even reach the house and yet it's... even on campus, at Cornell we used to have heritage trees and you know, in the UK there's a whole program about protecting heritage trees. We seem to have hazard trees now. And some of the oldest trees on the Cornell campus - you know, 200-250 year old oaks -have come down in recent years. Perfectly healthy trees.
Doug Still: 12:18
We're a litigious society and there's also a fear of large trees.
Thomas Campanella: 12:23
Yeah, the risk management people I always joke that risk management office at Cornell is like, basically runs the university. I can say this because I'm tenured, by the way [Doug laughs]. And, so anyway, if a tree is deemed a hazard then all the other values go out the window, even if it is perfectly healthy, and poses really no hazard at all. So this tree comes down lamentably. And it seems that Thoreau is perhaps the only person who appreciates and mourns the passing of this tree. So I think it's more than just that tree, right? It becomes a symbol and a touchstone for Thorough, representing the elm generally, and I think trees and nature generally.
Doug Still: 13:08
So he eulogized the tree or at least he said he did.
Thomas Campanella: 13:11
Yeah, that's right.
Doug Still: 13:13
But he said, there's no one here to hear this eulogy. [laughs] There are no town selectmen. And there's another tree in Massachusetts, the Deerfield elm, that you wrote about, that was removed in 1853. So three years earlier, and it was in the press, and they had a memorial service and dignitaries in town. So I'm wondering if he was referencing that in a way [maybe] like in Deerfield they had this big [Yeah] memorial service. And here, there's nobody here.
Thomas Campanella: 13:45
Yeah, no, that was a monster that elm. There's a photo in my book of a local antiquarian sort of mourning, you know, standing there, and he's quite elderly with a long white beard. So there's a certain symmetry between man and tree. But also remember, Deerfield had a different presence in the cultural memory of New England at that time. You know, now, we look back at Concord as having this enormous historical significance because of people like Emerson and Thoreau and Margaret Fuller and others, Nathaniel Hawthorne. But I think they looked to Deerfield as an equivalent dimension that we look perhaps to Concord today. So, I think that's why that tree got more press and more coverage. You know, it was a storied tree. I can't remember the details, but it was, I think, a witness to the clashes with Native Americans that occurred in Deerfield, many, many decades or a century earlier.
Doug Still: 14:50
So what did Thoreau feel was lost when this tree came down?
Thomas Campanella: 14:54
Well, I think aside from the magnificence of it as a natural being, right, as a representative of the natural world, I think he felt it was a witness. And, you know, these witness trees were, a real presence in the Yankee landscape in the 19th century, because they were said to have been there and witnessed these historical moments, right. Some of them were, you know, the subject of enormous exaggeration and inaccuracy. The Washington Elm in Cambridge is the best example of that. But I think that's part of it, right? He mourns the fact that no one seemed to appreciate that this was a tree that was present in the birth, at the moment of the birth of this town, or at least its nascence. You know, it's early years, right? 127 years, it doesn't really go back to the actual founding, but close, right?
Doug Still: 15:56
And you write that he or people at that time, felt that elms, in a way, consecrated the landscape. [Right] So compared to you know, the white spires of the churches, that they linked to earth and heaven. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Thomas Campanella: 16:15
Yeah, that's actually a concept that Mircea Eliade writes about or wrote about this notion of an axis mundi, right, which is Latin for basically a pivot of the world that links the sacred and the profane. Right. And yeah, the church steeple, the meetinghouse steeple is a very classic example. And we have that verticality in many, many cultures. You look at some of the temples in classical Indian architecture, it's also that vertical, that point of connectivity between the realms, the heavens and the earth. Yeah, there's a certain symmetry that emerges between the temple I'm sorry, the meetinghouse staple, the church steeple, in New England, and the towering solitary elm, right. In many towns, there was a single elm, often from the settlement period or reputedly from the settlement period, that was a totem right? It had a totemic role in the good.
One of the best examples is the Pittsfield Elm which was this enormous tree of great height and girth, and it was reputed to have been a remnant of the original forest or the Aboriginal forest as was often said. So, it again it had a witness role, but also this totemic role. And things, you know, community events would take place or be held at the base of the tree, right? And over time, these totemic trees, aside from being witnesses to many, you know, maybe a century's worth of history or more, tended to draw significant events to them, even events that took place quite a ways away. They suddenly or over time, I should say, they became associated with this totemic entity in the landscape.
Doug Still: 18:26
When you think of early drawings or etchings of a New England town, and they're up there picking an image to choose to represent that town, it's usually the meeting house or church and then an elm. [Yeah] I think that sort of became this image that we remember. And the spire is pointy, and the elm is sort of the opposite. It's like a fountain.
Thomas Campanella: 18:50
It's a fountain. It's, you know, that was one of the reasons why this tree was so embraced early on. It has this remarkably beautiful form. And it is like a fountain spray, right? It's often referred, it's often described as a wine glass. I think of it more as a fountain spray. And it's remarkably beautiful in the limb structure too. Even in the winter, when the leaves are gone, it has this Medusan sort of tangle of limbs that is just so beautifully sculptural. And when you put them next to each other, in the street or commons that are lined with it, it creates a remarkable image of the Gothic arch, which remember, in the middle years of the 19th century, this had itself a lot of significance because the Gothic, a lot of these architectural revivals, Gothic architecture is very popular in that period, including the Gothic Revival. And often you have the streets referred to in those terms that they were, you know, rough hewn or unhewn cathedrals right, and this was a nation that had turned its profane streets into cathedrals.
Doug Still: 20:05
That's something I always used to say in describing, you know, what the streets used to look like when they were lined with American elms in our cities and towns. This cathedral-like canopy. And I guess I just heard that from somewhere and I would sort of repeat it. But it creates an image. It's just interesting to hear that there's this sort of other source or meaning to it from the 19th century, [Oh, yeah] it's connected.
Thomas Campanella: 20:30
Yeah, and there was actually at least one attempt to create a cathedral with elm. It was Montgomery Meigs' father. Montgomery Meigs was an architect who became very prominent in the Civil War, post Civil War era. He designed the old Pension Building in Washington, which is where the National Building Museum is, but yeah, there's that imagery and it's really remarkable. You know, you and I are too young to remember the elm as a major presence in American towns and cities. But I often tell people, you know, who say, well, I really wish I could experience what it was, what Elm Street was like. And of all places, I would say the best example, the best place to go to experience that is the Central Park Mall in New York City. The mall there, those elms are really reaching a glorious state of elder age. And there, it is really the closest thing I know of. I mean, Washington Mall in Washington also, but those trees tend to be a bit smaller.
Doug Still: 21:43
And then they lead up to the Bethesda Fountain. [Sure] You sort of get a taste of the 19th century I feel, in that landscape.
Thomas Campanella: 21:50
Yeah, very much so. It is, yeah, it's a Victorian or middle 19th century to Victorian era landscape.
Doug Still: 21:58
So at that time, the forests of New England were denuded. I mean, they were cleared. [Yeah] There's hardly any old growth forest left. [Right] Our forests now are about 140 years old, when they stopped doing the cutting. So in the 1850's, Thoreau's responding to, "Why are we clearing all the forests?" you know, and I think trees became a little bit more valuable to him, too, for that reason, and I can see why they would gather under the trees too, just for some shade, and as a focal point.
Thomas Campanella: 22:32
So the interesting thing that, and this is something that I uncovered and came across again and again in the early literature of New England, and especially I used the old agricultural journals and newsletters to do some of the deep research for this book. But the elm was often.. first of all, the elm does not grow in pure stands like some trees do, right? It is not a tree that you see many of or a pure stand of in the forest. It's a solitary tree. Much like the American Sycamore, you know, you'll have one there and another one some 100 yards away, or...and it's also a bottomland and lowland tree, right? It's not an upland tree. So what happened was the elms were saved, ironically, by their enormous size, in many cases, or at least the older ones were because it you know, it would take an enormous amount of effort to cut one of these down. Also, as far as clearing the fields, why do you clear the fields? You want ground to plant, but you also want to free the ground from shade. Well, these older elms, in addition to it being many days labor to cut down, they had a form that lifted the crown. It's so high up that if you imagine the sun going through its diurnal path, it would move that shadow, the crown shadow, very rapidly through the field. So it wasn't as much of a problem as you would have, say, with a dense oak or maple tree that created an almost permanent pool of shade around its base.
Doug Still: 24:19
The wood wasn't as valuable either.
Thomas Campanella: 24:21
That's the other thing. The wood was not very valuable. So you know, when you cut a maple or an oak, you could get a return on it because the wood was sought after. Elm wood is very stringy, it's hard to cut. It's got, there are certain uses that it's appropriate for but what I'm getting to here is these solitary elms were often left behind. And so they gain a presence in the New England imagination, right? They are there. They're magnificent, they're beautiful. They have this form. And that is the seed stock for the later mass planting of this tree. Once we get to the period that we refer to as the village improvement era, the village improvement societies organize. And one of the main things they do, one of the first things they do is plant trees on the commons, on the streets in their towns to beautify them. And there's a whole set of reasons why they were doing that. But they look to the American elm as their number one tree.
Doug Still: 25:23
I thought it was fascinating when you wrote about, sort of prior to that movement, that the nation was essentially, you know, had some insecurities or an inferiority complex with Europe. And we were a young nation. And so the fashion was to plant exotics. [Yeah, right] There was one in particular that got planted a lot. The Lombardy Poplar.
Thomas Campanella: 25:49
Yeah, the Lombardy Poplar. That's right.
Doug Still: 25:52
And so the Lombardy poplar is this very columnar, upright tree. [Right] Pointy. One associated it with Northern Italy or central Italy, Tuscany, [right] and sort of archaic landscapes, ruins, Italian towns, and very strong on the eye [laughs].
Thomas Campanella: 26:14
Yeah, that's right, they would plant, yeah, the Lombardy poplar was a very popular tree in the first few decades of the 19th century. And there are images and etchings and drawings of, for example, Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, lined - from the White House up to the Capitol - lined with Lombardy's. There are countless images of towns and cities in the Northeast, and you see...as you said, it's such a distinctive tree. Even an amateur painter or artist could get them right. In Boston, streets were lined with these then.
Doug Still: 26:56
And very uniform.
Thomas Campanella: 26:58
Yeah, very uniform. And there were two main reasons why it became so popular. First of all, was the imagery and the associations, right,? They were associated with the storied lands of antiquity, right? And this is an era when a lot of artists are going and studying and painting these classical landscapes, right? And so there's a certain attraction there. The other reason, quite frankly, and this is also why the American elm is so embraced, is it is an extremely fast growing tree. Right? So if you have a place that is as upstart and as unkempt and as kind of, you know, daggy as American towns were and cities were at this time, you want something that's going to bring a modicum of beauty quickly, right? You don't want to plant, you know, a white oak and have to wait a century for it to create some...and Lombardy poplar, Jesus, it must grow a foot a day in the summer. It doesn't last very long. That's the drawback. But there's a lot and you know, what happens here is these exotics -and it wasn't just the Lombardy. Lombardy was a very popular one, but another one was Ailanthus altissima, the Tree of Heaven, which is also a very rapid growing tree. It is now on countless lists of invasive species. But it's a very tenacious tree. It had its defenders, even after the you know, the great backlash against exotics, and it still has its defenders. I am very fond of the Tree of Heaven, although some will call it the tree of hell.
Doug Still: 28:46
So it was brought from China. [Yes] It was valued for its foliage and fast growing [right] and I actually have some close friends who live in a house built in 1790 here in Providence, and they have an enormous Ailanthus [wow] that frames the house, and it's spectacular. Reading this makes me wonder how old that tree is. [Yeah] If it dates that far back or not?
Thomas Campanella: 29:15
It's hard to tell. I know of some enormous Ailanthus trees in Brooklyn actually. And you know, it's a tree that was originally brought here to, as part of an ill fated effort to develop a native, an American silk industry.
Doug Still: 29:36
Right, along with mulberry too.
Thomas Campanella: 29:39
and mulberry right. You know, what happened was the Cynthia moth - the moth, the larvae that feed on Ailanthus didn't do very well in the climate. Although they are around. When I was a teenager, the very first piece I ever published - essay I ever published was about collecting these the tiny baby larvae, immature larvae in an Ailanthus grove along the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn and raising these moths. But the tree certainly has taken off.
Doug Still: 30:14
So I just want to read one passage from your book that made me laugh out loud just because it was so interesting and sort of funny. And back to the Lombardy Poplar. "The use of the Lombardy poplar in America may have had an even more distinguished pedigree. Samuel Elliott Morrison claimed that the tree had been introduced by none other than the classicist, Thomas Jefferson. In the early decades of the 19th century, he wrote, it was a sign of unterrified democracy in New England to plant Lombardy poplars. The dendrological badge of Jeffersonian republicanism. Of course, the Federalists turn the badge against its benefactor, pointing out that the Lombardy's soft, pulpy wood and attraction for worms [Tom laughs] resembled the brain of the gentleman who introduced them.” [that's funny, yeah] So it becomes this sort of propaganda.
Thomas Campanella: 31:11
Yeah, you know, that's a wonderful passage. And, I had forgotten about that. You know, what happens though with these trees. As the young American nation reaches adolescence and begins to, you know, find itself and flex its muscles, and becomes more confident in itself and its culture, there's a huge backlash against the so-called exotics [right], and it can get pretty vehement and even racist at times. Yeah, and you mentioned that, particularly about the Ailanthus. [Right] Could you describe... Well, the Ailanthus, as anyone who's struggled with it in their garden will know or will recognize, it rapidly spreads by roots, you know, it sends out roots and it sprouts from the roots, there's a term…
Doug Still: 32:06
This is the tree along train tracks, in empty lots, and it's the "Tree That Grows in Brooklyn."
Thomas Campanella: 32:11
It's the "Tree That Grows in Brooklyn," exactly. It's a very tenacious tree. It spreads very rapidly, both by seed but also by its root system, and so once it gets established, it's pretty hard to fight back. It's reminiscent of the more recent arrival here from Asia, the Japanese knotweed, which boy, you get that going, you really you need a backhoe to excavate it out. [yeah] So what happens here is there's... as Americans discover, their... as they gain confidence, they start looking to the native trees, right, the trees of the American forest and saying, "Why don't we plant these trees?" There's a nativist, there's a very strong nativist element, [nationalism] native plant movement. It's a very nationalistic, nativist, and even racist embrace of American trees, right? We don't want the foreigner. And what happens is that the Ailanthus in particular gets painted in very racist terms, that it's this, you know... I think the early and pioneering horticulturist and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing is infamous for this because he refers to the Ailanthus as I think he describes it as a wily Asiatic, right, whose intermeddling roots are threatening our American democracy or our American republic. I'm paraphrasing a little. He quite vociferously advocates its purging of this tree, right. And so this maps to political movements at the time to ban immigration from China and from elsewhere in Asia. And this is when you really have the wholesale embrace of American tree species, including and primarily the American Elm, at least in the northeastern part of New England.
Doug Still: 34:22
So in the 1830s and 1840s, this sort of movement to plant native trees, especially the elm, takes off. [Yep] There's this "Tree Bee" in Sheffield, Massachusetts. [Yeah] What's the "Tree Bee?"
Thomas Campanella: 34:40
Well, you know what's going on in rural New England at this time is a really difficult passage, actually, for the residents and these communities. These were very successful farming communities. They were quite affluent in many cases. And all of a sudden the rural agricultural economy goes into a very steep decline. And these, you know, the local leadership, the elected officials, the elders of these towns are struggling to both keep the young people from leaving, but also they recognize over time, and this is more in the in the second half of the 19th century, that affluent successful folks who grew up in these towns grew up in rural New England and then went and found their fortunes in the Hartfords and the Bostons and the Springfields and the New York Cities. They want to come back to their roots. And there's the beginnings of summer vacationing and tourism in these places. So if you combine these, the feeling was we had better make these very beautiful, picturesque, attractive places. And you know, when you stir into this mix the iconography of Currier and Ives, for example. The elm tossed New England green and common with its church and meetinghouse steeples - that becomes something people expect, right? That's what they're looking for and that's what they want.
And many, many New England towns didn't have that. There were plenty of towns where the common was just a scruffy field, right? It had no elms. And so what happens is there's a movement throughout - it starts in the Berkshires and in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut, and it spreads throughout New England. And it's a beautification movement. It's usually referred to as the Village Improvement Movement. And there were these village improvement societies founded, and that spreads to New York too. I should say that the reason for the sudden decline in the agricultural economy, the rural economy of New England, had everything to do with a piece of major infrastructure, transportation infrastructure, that is developed in New York, and that's the Erie Canal. What the Erie Canal did, much like, you know, you can imagine it as a major interstate, for example. And in fact, the New York State Thruway follows one hundred years later or more, the exact route of the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal put New York City and the Port of New York in very close and easy touch to some of the enormously productive, enormously fertile farmland in upstate New York, right? So what happens is New England agriculture is kind of cut out of the loop. Farming in New England was never easy, right? You've got a very, you know, very dramatic climate, very cold long winters, the soils are very stony.
So here now is this very, you know, productive farmland that's within easy reach of the greatest port on the Eastern Seaboard. So that is the reason why these towns go into decline. So the village improvers, the first and most significant thing they do, project they undertake, is the planting of these elm trees. And that is what leads to the Tree Bee. The Tree Bee was the earliest example that I've come across of a mass planting effort, right so everybody in the town of Sheffield gets together and they plant dozens if not scores [thousands] yeah, hundreds of elm saplings and whips. And over time, Sheffield becomes renowned for its beautiful elm lined streets and commons.
Doug Still: 39:04
There was an intellectual meeting place in Western Mass that involved the sketch club, I read about the sketch club. And that is William Cullen Bryant? Who's in the sketch club?
Thomas Campanella: 39:19
The sketch club as I recall, it was a group of you know, it was a literary group and artists who... and I talk about it because there was a certain connection there between this village improvement movement and the embrace of the elm in western Massachusetts and the Berkshires, and the literary scene in New York City. So there's a connection there to the larger emerging society or culture of the United States and New York.
Doug Still: 39:57
And its artists too, right? The Hudson River School and Emerson…
Thomas Campanella: 40:03
Yeah, I describe it as the environmental awakening. There's this movement that emerges in this period. And the village improvement movement is a good example of one of its expressions, right? There's the sense that prior to the environmental awakening, nature was a resource to be exploited. Right. And it's the environmental awakening that it's very much rooted in romanticism coming from France and elsewhere in the old world. But it's a whole new attitude about the natural world and one that is much more about respecting and admiring and nurturing the values therein instead of just an exploitative stance. And this is, the transcendentalists come out of this larger milieu. The Hudson River School of painters of landscape painting comes out of this milieu and in a more quotidian, prosaic way you've got the village improvers. Andrew Jackson Downing is also part of this, he's writing about the improvement of one's home grounds, right, and this whole, this new yearning for spatial beauty as I think John Stilgoe, the landscape historian at Harvard put it.
Doug Still: 41:34
So back to Thoreau, he came just after this, or was he part of it?
Thomas Campanella: 41:39
He's a core member, you know, part of the transcendentalist movement. That's right. I don't think he was in the sketch club.
Doug Still: 41:46
But he was definitely influenced by them and knew Emerson, obviously.
Thomas Campanella: 41:50
Yeah, and William Cullen Bryant is a major part of this embrace of nature and the natural world. There's also a nationalistic dimension here. Because, you know, and Downing writes about this, too. There's this sense, you mentioned earlier that Americans in the early republic and the early 19th century had this cultural inferiority complex, where anything of any value, right, artistic, literary, had to come from the old world, right? Anything created, written, thought of here really didn't have much gravitas because it was an upstart nation. That starts changing, it starts changing in the Jacksonian period. And by the time you get to the middle years of the 19th century, it's not just expressed in an embrace of native trees, but a stance that looks to the natural world, right, and the extraordinary heritage of North America and the natural heritage. Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Shenandoahs and the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Adirondacks. Americans start looking to that as the equivalent, right, and more, of the cultural achievements of the old world. So the old world has its Parthenon, its Pantheon. It's, you know, it's extraordinary architectural heritage and the ruins of the Roman era and the medieval landscapes of northern Europe. And Americans say, well, that's great, you have all that, but we have these, these extraordinary places, these extraordinary natural monuments that are directly from the hand of the Creator. So they're saying, Ah, we were one upping, because this is nature's nation. This is a place uniquely blessed by God.
Doug Still: 43:54
And Thoreau's responding to that. When we remove, when we cut down all our forests, we're sort of abusing that.
Thomas Campanella: 44:01
Oh yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Doug Still: 44:04
So, it's the 1850s, and the Civil War is about to happen and the abolitionist movement is tearing the country apart, essentially. And he uses elm trees - I don't know if specifically the elm tree that we're talking about - as a metaphor for the abolitionist movement. [Yeah] and the Free Soil Party. Could you talk about that?
Thomas Campanella: 44:27
Yeah, you know, the details of this will escape me but he uses the elm as a symbol of the...well, this is a period when there's this, the free soilers, and there's this struggle over whether, not not only the the Fugitive Slave Act, which basically criminalized anyone who assisted a slave escaping the South, but there was a fight over whether slavery should be extended West.
Doug Still: 45:01
Right, and the Free Soil Party is in response to that.
Thomas Campanella: 45:05
Exactly right. He's very facile in adapting the metaphor of the American Elm and these trees to various political issues of the day.
Doug Still: 45:16
Could I read you a passage from your book, and read for our listeners, that is. "'The elms,' writes Thoreau, 'are Free Soilers in their own broad sense. They send their roots north and south and east and west into many a conservative's, Kansas and Carolina who does not suspect such underground railroads. They improve the subsoil, he has never disturbed, and many times their length, if support of their principles requires it. They battle with a tempest of a century. See what scars they bear, what limbs they've lost before we were born, yet they never adjourn. They steadily vote for their principles, and send their roots further and wider from the same center. They die at their posts, and they leave a tough butt for the choppers [Tom laughs] to exercise themselves about, and a stump, which serves for their monument.'"
Thomas Campanella: 46:09
That's such an extraordinary passage and beaut...I mean, he wrote like an angel. But it's such a powerful metaphor for this, the values and the principles of the abolition abolitionists and the abolitionist movement.
Doug Still: 46:27
There's another sort... he extends the metaphor in this beautiful way, and talks about how the center of the elm may decay, but the growth is really in the rings of the tree in the cambium under the bark, and that is new.
Thomas Campanella: 46:45
Right, yeah. And I think he's talking, he's referring to the renewal of the movement and the passage or the passing on of these principles and values to a younger generation.
Doug Still: 46:57
So what you write sort of along those lines, you know, we talked about trees being witness trees to the past, and how they were in the same place that many historic events happen, and important people were, and they sort of draw our memory back. But you wrote just that the trees over time, put on new rings of growth, and it's not really the same tree it was in the past, and that each sort of generation after that gets to experience the tree in its own way, and add their own history to it.
Thomas Campanella: 47:29
So in many New England towns and cities, these so called ...and in the rural landscape too...these these solitary elms, and they were mostly elms, but not always, right. There are witness oaks, there are other trees, but it's almost, it's more common that these witness trees were American elms. And they tend to be elms of substantial size and beauty and form. And one of the things I discovered was that there they tended to draw to them historical events that occurred in the general area, but not necessarily right there. And over time, they come to be representative of the event and in that location. But in most cases,
Doug Still: 48:22
Not necessarily right under that tree,
Thomas Campanella: 48:24
No, not necessarily right under there. So there's this remarkable...and this taps into what I was talking about what we were talking about earlier about nature's Nation versus the you know, the stones of the old world, right, the ruins, the architectural ruins. So what is a more appropriate monument for this young nation? Is it the marble, you know, the marble obelisk? Or is it a great old tree and reputed remnant of the original forest? And very few of these trees were remnants of the Aboriginal forest, as was often said. There was a witness tree on the Boston Common, for example, where all sorts of associations were sort of tied to, and it was the Great Elm and that was what it was called the Great Elm of Boston Common. And in the book, you probably saw this remarkable photograph of all the Methodist ministers of New England gathered for a meeting. And they were, did they gather not in front of the Methodist Church? Right, but under this great witness tree. Another example is the Washington elm which I mentioned earlier in Cambridge, which was said to be where Washington, you know, he stood under this great elm when he took command of the continental troops at the outset of the revolution. Well, when the tree finally came down, which by the way was blamed on communists, they had somehow sabotaged the tree. The rings were counted and alas, if Washington took command of the troops under this tree, he would have been crouching below [a small tree] a little sapling, yeah.
Doug Still: 50:11
There's something about this being a living thing that was alive at that time [yes] it's alive now. And it's somewhat different than a building. The buildings are there. [exactly] But we don't venerate the buildings in the same way.
Thomas Campanella: 50:25
We do now, I think we do now, but yeah, the fact that this was a living being, right? That this was a living entity that witnessed this passage, and it literally puts you into this continuum, right? Instead of an inertness that a building or a symbol of stone or monument would do.
Doug Still: 50:49
It's a powerful thought. This seems to be just a very human reaction to all trees, across cultures over time, and I'm wondering…
Thomas Campanella: 51:02
Well, there are many cultures where you have a tree, often of a particular species, that plays a role, a sacred role, or, a quasi-sacred role. The Bow tree, the Ceiba tree in Central and Latin America, the Bow tree in parts of Asia. The American elm, I would say, it was the closest thing we've had in our country to a sacred tree. And often very much in a religious dimension, as I said earlier, when you have this notion of the unhewn, cathedrals, right? The best example of that, which was world famous, was Temple Street, literally Temple Street, in New Haven, which is the street that cuts right across the New Haven Green. And it was lined with elms, very closely, too closely it turns out, planted. And it created this extraordinary...Dickens, when he visited, I think in the 1840s, he made this very celebrated trip to America and he writes about it, right? He visits Temple Street, it's on his list. It's on his bucket list, there with Niagara Falls and New York City, to see this remarkable example of American space.
Doug Still: 52:27
I think one thing that drew me to this story in 1856, of this tree coming down, is that, you know, we do this now. We venerate old trees and love them and recognize them. But here was Thoreau doing the same thing, in a way, 150-160 years ago. And we seem to do this almost in every era, like we're looking back to it another time.
Thomas Campanella: 52:54
Yeah, yeah. But he I mean, he really is at the forefront of this because he's coming out of an era when we Americans did not really look to the natural world through a lens like that. It was like I said earlier, it was much more exploitative.
Doug Still: 53:13
Yeah, and it's not just a simple act of nostalgia to write about this tree either. He's looking to the future. He's looking at his current time [Sure] and the future. So just to wrap up, I have a question for you. Before you studied landscape architecture and urban planning and became a professor, you studied forestry [Yeah, I did, right] at ESF - that's the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, in Syracuse. [Right] And so you've had a long love of trees yourself and interest in their ecology. What meaning does the Davis Elm as some people call it, or the American element general, if you prefer, have for you?
Thomas Campanella: 53:54
I can point to the exact moment and place where I fell in love with the American elm. I grew up in Brooklyn, and my mom used to bring us, my brother and I, to the American Museum of Natural History quite often. This was right on, you know, from our part of Brooklyn, it was the I think it was back then it was the D train now it's the B train, but and it was, you know, there was a stop right there at the museum. And we would go. And in the Hall of North American Forests, or Hall of North American trees, there were two exhibits that just moved me enormously. One was an enormous section of a redwood. It may have been a Sequoia...it was a California redwood. And it had you know, the rings were very visible and it had little markers showing the fall of the Roman Empire and the fact that this was a record of it, basically, this enormous passage in human history that just... and when I finally went out west myself, I worked for many summers as a firefighter with the United States Forest Service. I remember that was one of the things I first went to see were the redwoods.
But across in this one exhibit hall across from the redwoods section was a very evocative, back lit painting. And it was titled simply The Elm in New England. And it was this very evocative romantic scene of these arching elm trees, looking down a road into like this pastoral New England landscape, but I think there was a farmer, their little farm settlement. And it just there was something about that image that just so moved me. I also remember, this is the early 70s. And when we would go with my family, when we would go up to the Adirondacks for an extended weekend, or, you know, the once a year family road trip, my dad would point out the skeletal remains of these dead elm trees, because this was the period when a lot of these great elms were still present in the landscape. They were dead. And there were actually a fair number that you were still living. I remember at the Saratoga Springs, at the actual historic site, the springs, there were a couple of enormous beautiful elms that you know that I actually still have the photos, the slides.
And so I was very moved from an early age by this tree. And like you said, I fell in love with trees, generally. I just, I just really loved trees. And partly it was from summer camp and, and Bear Mountain I remember, I used to identify all the trees on the trails around Hessian Lake. So I did, I studied forestry. And then as I said, I worked summers with the Forest Service. And, in the process of studying forestry, I discovered landscape architecture, which had that creative dimension to it that I really found fascinating.
Doug Still: 57:20
Well, I've really enjoyed our conversation today. You mentioned that - I mean, you work on a lot of things - but you mentioned some work on trees that you're doing now.
Thomas Campanella: 57:32
Yeah, I'm actually working on a book that is really, you know, tracing the roots, quote, unquote, of three New York trees, right? And they're not germane to exclusively New York City, but they're prominent entities in New York's urban landscape. And one is the American Elm. And we've talked about two of the three, the American Elm one is the Ailanthus, Tree of Heaven. And the third is the London plane. The book is organized, obviously, in three parts. It begins with the element that's called the Patrician. And then there's the whole part of the book, the second part is about the London plane, which is called the Cosmopolitan. And that's a reference to the London plane, I'm sure you know, this is a hybrid. It was an accidental hybrid between the American Sycamore and the Asian or Oriental Sycamore. And this combined to create really one of the best street trees we've ever had. It's not quite as romantically beautiful as the American elm, but it's very tenacious and fast growing. And then the third part of the book is about the Ailanthus, and that's called the Immigrant. So it's the Patrician, the Cosmopolitan and the Immigrant. It's fun, I'm having a blast with it, because I'm writing about obviously, the cultural histories of these trees, and how they came to gain a presence in our landscape.
Doug Still: 59:04
I can't wait for that to come out and to read it. Maybe I'll have you back…
Thomas Campanella: 59:10
Yeah, that'd be great.
Douglas Still: 59:11
...when that happens, and thanks again, I really enjoyed our conversation.
Thomas Campanella: 59:16
I've enjoyed it, too. Take care.
Doug Still: 59:21
Well, I'm going to end it there. Thank you tree lovers, for joining us on this journey through the early history of the American elm. And thanks very much to Thomas Campanella for sharing his great work. I've got links to more of his writing in the show notes. Don't forget to subscribe if you enjoyed the show, and you can find photos of the trees featured here and other updates for This Old Tree on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We don't have a Tree Story Short this week, but definitely submit one if you have a personal tree story to tell. It can be one to three minutes long. Just record it using the Voice Memo app on your phone and email it to me, instructions in the show notes. Hopefully together, we can slow the indiscriminate removal of large healthy trees. But the next time you see it happen, speak up. Thoreau would have your back. Here's arborist and songwriter Dee Lee to take us out.
This Old Tree song - Dee Lee: 1:00:11
This old tree, standing here for more than four centuries. I wonder what you'd say if you could talk to me about what it's like to be, this old tree. Shadow and shade, kids down the block are selling lemonade. Send them down to cool breezes sweet cascade, tailor made by this old tree. In 1600 you were just a seed, reaching bothers sky, high. Waiting for a chance to take your place in the warm sunshine. Here I go, high above the place where the people grow, leave my troubles on the ground far below, so I can get to know, this old tree. Summer sparke in your leaves. Autumn winds will bring relief. Winter calls for you to sleep. Spring returns again in green. But the town - ships on the water side spy your royal crown. Sentinal of green, two points off starboard bow, homeward bound to this old tree. In 1800 you felt the thunder or roll, lightning split the sky, high. Though the fire raged in the little town below, you managed to survive, this scar upon your side. This old tree, reach out and touch a living history! Beneath my hands an ancient mystery, how small I am by this old tree. How small I am by this old tree.