Great Elms

fallen tree

MichaelGaida | Pixabay

By Franklin Burroughs

Fifty years ago, we moved to Maine and bought our first home, an old and modest Cape Cod cottage — four small rooms downstairs, two smaller ones upstairs, under the rafters. A towering elm stood in the side yard, ridiculously out of scale with everything around it. The tree was much younger than the house. It was quite possibly planted in 1876. That would be consistent with its size, and that was America’s triumphantly celebrated Centennial Year, which also happened to be the year a winter storm blew down the famous Great Elm on the Boston Common. The coincidence occasioned a spate of patriotic elm planting throughout the country, and especially in New England.

As we settled in, Dutch Elm disease was killing off the last of the big local elms. Ours, still outwardly healthy, was doomed. You saw dead ones standing everywhere — in farmyards, front yards, along city streets. Most of them were roughly the same size as ours, and appeared to have been planted at about the same time, in a nation that had survived a savage Civil War and grown from 13 quarrelsome colonies into a continental empire over the course of a single century.

By 1968, our nation was again on the brink of disintegration, as though the dying elms portended the end of the American Experiment. But from the get-go, the prospect of imminent death has been what we signed on for.

Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.

— John Adams, 1814

As the elms were disappearing and we were learning to live in Maine and an unwinnable war was raging in Vietnam, the Black Panthers coined their “power to the people” slogan, which was immediately appropriated by the anti-war movement. The idea behind the slogan has been deployed throughout our history. These days, neo-populists claim it, and with it, the mantle of the American Revolution: the Tea Party, the Liberty Caucus, the many self-styled militias in the mountain West. Whoever claims that legacy implicitly threatens violence against perceived Enemies of The People:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots. It is its natural manure.

— Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Back when all this got started, the Boston Common boasted another elm. It had been planted in 1646, which made it younger than the Great Elm, and it would die sooner. By 1766, John Adams, describing a meeting with other patriotic opponents of the Stamp Act, could refer familiarly to it as the Liberty Tree. Not long after that meeting, self-styled patriots hung effigies of Stamp Act proponents from its branches. Liberty trees were soon designated in other colonies. In Charleston, South Carolina, it was a majestic live oak.

During the war, Royalist forces chopped down the Liberty Trees in both Boston and Charleston, as though to destroy the rebellion at the root. Thereafter, New England’s elms, long cherished as ornaments, became symbols, providing not simply shade and a certain elegance to raw, unprepossessing little towns and ordinary farmhouses, but also asserting, in the quiet, persistent way of trees, the steadfastness and growth of a country and an idea.

New England Elms, long cherished as ornaments, became symbols, providing more than simply shade

I assume whoever planted the one in our side yard meant to celebrate patriotic and democratic notions. But I expect he also imagined the sapling growing and in time becoming the tallest tree around — a local landmark, evidence of the prosperity, preeminence, and rootedness of his descendants: that is, of their status as democratic aristocrats. “Democratic aristocrat” is, of course, an oxymoron, expressing another internal contradiction that has always been with us. Jefferson was one; Adams was the mirror image: an aristocratic democrat.

Even before we moved here, the effort to locate and propagate disease-resistant elms had gotten underway, and it continues. Thus far, this experimental undertaking cannot be said to have succeeded. Or failed.

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Franklin Burroughs

Franklin Burroughs is a retired professor of English at Bowdoin College.