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Enduring Roots: Encounters with Trees, History, and the American Landscape

Enduring Roots: Encounters with Trees, History, and the American Landscape

by Gayle Brandow Samuels

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Trees are the grandest and most beautiful plant creations on earth. From their shade-giving, arching branches and strikingly diverse bark to their complex root systems, trees represent shelter, stability, place, and community as few other living objects can.

Enduring Roots tells the stories of historic American trees, including the oak, the apple, the


Trees are the grandest and most beautiful plant creations on earth. From their shade-giving, arching branches and strikingly diverse bark to their complex root systems, trees represent shelter, stability, place, and community as few other living objects can.

Enduring Roots tells the stories of historic American trees, including the oak, the apple, the cherry, and the oldest of the world’s trees, the bristlecone pine. These stories speak of our attachment to the land, of our universal and eternal need to leave a legacy, and demonstrate that the landscape is a gift, to be both received and, sometimes, tragically, to be destroyed.

Each chapter of this book focuses on a specific tree or group of trees and its relationship to both natural and human history, while exploring themes of community, memory, time, and place. Readers learn that colonial farmers planted marker trees near their homes to commemorate auspicious events like the birth of a child, a marriage, or the building of a house. They discover that Benjamin Franklin’s Newtown Pippin apples were made into a pie aboard Captain Cook’s Endeavour while the ship was sailing between Tahiti and New Zealand. They are told the little-known story of how the Japanese flowering cherry became the official tree of our nation’s capital—a tale spanning many decades and involving an international cast of characters. Taken together, these and many other stories provide us with a new ways to interpret the American landscape.

“It is my hope,” the author writes, “that this collection will be seen for what it is, a few trees selected from a great forest, and that readers will explore both—the trees and the forest—and find pieces of their own stories in each.”

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a delightful crazy-quilt of American studies, Samuels (Women in the City of Brotherly Love... and Beyond) focuses on trees--in the natural environs and in U.S. history--to explore the intersection of the past with the present. She begins with the Charter Oak in Hartford, Conn., which was given a hero's funeral in 1856. This revered white oak served as a meeting place for generations of Native Americans; according to legend, beleaguered colonists hid Connecticut's liberal charter in its hollowed trunk in 1687. Trees are woven into the fabric of our national saga in surprising ways, explains Samuels. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Jefferson grew apple orchards; Benjamin Franklin launched an export industry by introducing the Newtown Pippin apple into England. Samuels delineates the battle of prairie and heartland trees against drought, fungus, freezes and, through the 1980s, against legislation aimed at banning species fallen out of favor. She explains how the Japanese flowering cherry tree came to grace the Potomac--a complex tale of politics, pest control and cross-cultural exchange featuring Commodore Perry, President Taft, Nancy Reagan and Japanese rulers eager to root their national symbol in Washington's official landscape. Samuels shuttles fluidly between ecology, botany, folklore, poetry, travelogue (including her own trips to California's majestic, four-millennia-old sequoias and bristlecone pines) and sociological research--which reports, for example, that the presence of trees reduces urban violence and enhances suburban communities' feelings of cohesion. Her essays comprise both an uplifting meditation on trees and an unusual investigation of the American cultural landscape. 38 b&w illus. (Dec.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Trees have a history and folklore. And from this heritage, Samuels has collected various American tree stories "that have been passed down from generation to generation imbuing specific trees with communal and individual meanings." Begun as her master's thesis, this book discusses the histories of such things as the famous Charter Oak in Connecticut, the Washington Cherry Blossoms, and the Fred Budd Sycamore in Kentucky, as well as American apple orchards and the discovery of the world's oldest living thing, the bristlecone pine in California. Although the stories she tells are appealing, Samuels's presentation is unfocused--paragraphs often follow one another in a random sequence rather than in any logical progression. However, an extensive bibliography directs the reader to other, more interesting tree books; an optional purchase for larger public libraries.--Ilse Heidmann, San Marcos, TX Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Rutgers University Press
Publication date:
Studies in Modern Science, Technology, and the Environment Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.48(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Root: the lower part of a plant, usually underground, by which the plant is anchored and through which water and mineral nutrients enter the plant.

Michael Allaby, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Botany

I am openly polygamous when it comes to trees. My first love was a sycamore (Platanus acerfolia). The mottled bark, furry balls, and satisfying sound of its name attracted me. But what kept my affection was its presence on my grandmother's street: my favorite was directly in front of her house. After I married, when the paint was hardly dry on our first home and we were already moving again, we took a slip of the willow (Salix nigra) our toddlers had just begun to climb, tucked it in with the photo albums and finger paintings, and we planted it at our new home with the wish that all our roots would grow well in the new place we had found. Much later, on a trip to the West Coast, the eucalyptus (probably Eucalyptus ficifolia) caught my eye and my breath. It, too, had the "pied beauty" of the sycamore, but it also rustled soothingly when the breeze touched its leaves. It had a slightly pungent scent that perfumed the air and a seedpod so beautiful I secreted it in my suitcase so I could look at it and look at it on my windowsill at home. Thoughts of California still evoke thoughts of eucalyptus, and each sycamore, if I allow it, conjures up my childhood as certainly as Proust's madeleines did his.

    These, then, are some of memory's trees: toparaphrase A. Bartlett Giamatti, the green trees of my mind. Over the years, they have had more than a few companions. So many, in fact, that I have lately felt a need to organize; to shape and cultivate my trees, to discover their preferences and their favored companions, and to learn their stories. So I have continued to look, but I have also been reading.

    The choices are almost as varied and numerous as the trees themselves. I select from folklore and field guides, history, plant morphology, dendrochronology, news clippings, geology, forestry journals, paleontology, legal opinions, and family papers. I read botany to learn how trees work—this from the British botanist Oliver Rackham: "A tree does not have a predetermined life-span as we do.... The onset of old age is determined more by the size of the tree than by the number of its years; a tree that grows fast when young is likely to reach an early, middle, and old age." And I read poetry to understand how trees make us feel:

When dusky night do nearly hide The path along the hedge's zide ... Then if noo feäce we long'd to greet Could come to meet our lwonesome treäce ... However lwonesome we mid be, The trees would still be company.

I travel, look, listen, and fill myself with stories that are as like mine as another face and as unlike mine as another face. I read essays. This from John Fowles: "trees are like humans: they need their pasts to feed their presents"; and this from Emerson: "All the facts in natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren, like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life." And I remind myself of what Annie Dillard says: "We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place." Dillard wrote this about a trip to the Ecuadorian jungle, but I decide to visit Hartford, Connecticut, to get a feel for two different intersections—the intersection of Charter Oak Avenue and Charter Oak Place and the intersection of the past with the present.

Hartford is the home of the Connecticut Historical Society. Sitting there in a quiet room at a library table, I am reading about a funeral for a tree.

    Centered between two items urging support for the newly formed Republican Party's antislavery candidate, the soldier-explorer John C. Fremont, a black-banded front-page obituary in the August 21, 1856, Hartford Courant proclaimed the tree's death. "The Charter Oak is Prostrate! Our whole community, old and young, rich and poor, were grieved to learn that the famous old CHARTER OAK, in which Wadsworth hid King Charles' Charter of the old colony of Connecticut, in 1687, at the time when ... James 2nd, demanded its return, had been prostrated by the wind." The article went on to say that "no tree in the country has such legendary associations," and to tell of a dirge being played at noon by Colt's Armory Band and of the bells all over the city tolling at sundown "as a token of universal feeling, that one of the most sacred links that binds these modern days to the irrevocable past, had been suddenly parted."

    At the time of its death the Charter Oak had been a Hartford institution for almost two centuries. The tree was fully mature when colonial Hartford was founded. It was then, according to the enduring tale alluded to in the obituary, that the colonists, finding their freedom threatened by their monarch's decision to revoke their liberal charter, had turned to the tree and hidden the cherished document in a cavity within its trunk. (Like my mother, who hid behind her corpulent grandmother when trouble was brewing, I always think.)

    Newspapers across the country and as far away as England sympathetically reported the tree's death—from the New York Times to the Louisville Journal, Springfield Daily Republican, Washington Daily Union, and London Times. Grief, followed closely by a feeding frenzy among those eager to secure a fragment of the sacred relic, reached into Texas, Alabama, Georgia, the newly admitted state of California, and the Minnesota Territory. The president of Jefferson College in Mississippi requested a piece as did Hartford residents "bowed with age, and whose eyes were bleared with time [who] begged a sprig in commemoration."

    After its death, Nelson Augustus Moore photographed the fallen tree for posterity and, although greater artists had already depicted the Charter Oak, Charles De Wolf Brownell then painted what became the favored image. His painting was later selected for a 1936 U.S. postage stamp commemorating Connecticut's Tercentenary. Hartford and Connecticut chairs of state were fashioned from its wood, as were earrings, bracelets, goblets, beads, Bibles, a lamp and screen depicting heroes of the Revolution, and three pianos, which, by using the new technique of veneering, combined a celebration of nineteenth-century technology with commemoration of the ancient oak.

    Hartford resident Mark Twain quipped that he had seen enough pieces of the Charter Oak made into "a walking stick, a dog collar, needle case, three-legged stool ... and toothpick ... to build a plank road from Hartford to Salt Lake City": based on the estimate of one newspaper editor that in 1856 10,000 pieces of the tree made their way across the country, Twain might have exaggerated only a wee bit. Although it amuses us to learn that some Charter Oak relics were actually made from elm, there was nothing counterfeit in the fervor that swept America in the wake of the tree's demise. Flag-draped, it had been given a hero's funeral, and the nation had responded with that mixture of respect and memento-gathering that it would dust off again less than nine years later as solemn onlookers placed pennies on the tracks when the train carrying Abraham Lincoln's coffin passed by.

Lincoln's presidency and the Civil War were still several years away when the Charter Oak fell, but the tree's death was clearly a national unifier during a time of increasing dissension. Portents of the coming conflict had been spewing forth like volcanic ash: the Missouri Compromise excluding slavery from a portion of the Louisiana Purchase; the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin; the battle over Kansas, which had required federal troops to maintain order between pro- and antislavery factions; and the continuing drumroll of states declaring their slavery sentiments as they entered the union. Political issues hung heavy in the air, but economic and cultural matters also claimed national attention.

    The Charter Oak fell during a time when market forces were changing the economics of farming. As early as 1814, writers such as Revolutionary War general Benjamin Lincoln bemoaned the lavish consumption of trees, which was creating timber shortages around coastal towns. Pessimistically he observed, "There is little hope these things will change for the better, since the tenure of our land cannot secure them in the family for any distant period. Thus is destroyed one great motive which would lead the grandsire to plant the acorn." `

    It was a time when the advance of American industrialism, especially the extractive industries that depend on natural resources such as trees, was leaving an ever-greater mark on the common landscape and the collective consciousness. Industrialization created wealth much more rapidly than agriculture ever had, enriched a newly enlarged mercantile class, and populated factories and mills with immigrants, many whose ethnic roots differed from those of the early colonists. Home-based production was being replaced by newer industrial modes. "The capitalist revolution separated private from public life. The public sphere of marketplace and politics was dominated by men, the private sphere of home and family by women. Nature was also severed: science and technology became the instruments for economic development, spirit and emotion a counterpoint to competition." There was a growing awareness that idealized the past—and glorified its symbols, such as the ancient trees.

    The Charter Oak fell during a time when Americans were trying to establish a national culture. Europeans had been busily mining their pasts, searching out their "primitive, tribal, barbaric origin[s]." "Americans," the historian Perry Miller explains, "tried to answer by bragging about the future, but that would not serve ... [so] many of our best minds went hard to work to prove that we too were a nation in some deeper sense than mere wilfulness." What emerged was an American culture that was "rooted in the soil." "We may have come to this land by an act of will [writers like James Fenimore Cooper were saying], but despite ourselves, we have become part of the landscape."

    Our forebears, then, sought their "identity in their relationship to the land they had settled" and looked to the wonders of the landscape to provide "points of mythic and national unity" not confined to any religion or sect. The genteel tourist pilgrimages of the 1820s and 1830s to places like Niagara Falls, Lake George, or the Catskills reflect that search for a nature-inspired cultural idiom by that part of the population with leisure, money, a broadly defined cultural literacy, and the ability to secure lodging in a network of inns and hotels not open to everyone. Others saw in the continuing trans-Atlantic trade in new and exotic American plant species an affirmation of the more-than-raw-material value of the American landscape.

    And by the 1850s, the entire nation was awed and energized by a specific piece of the American landscape—trees. Reports of Yosemite and the Big Trees (Sequoia gigantea) rippled from west to east. The realization that America had living monuments of its own—older by far than Europe's constructed landscape, reaching back beyond the beginnings of the Christian era—was a matter of national pride.

    The Big Trees were not the only trees Americans marveled at. Tree stories were a well-developed regional art and claimed a national audience. In 1862, the popular Harper's New Monthly Magazine included a twenty-page illustrated article about the Charter Oak and sixteen other "grand old trees, about which memories cluster like the trailing vines." This was the same year that Thoreau's essay in praise of native apple trees, "Wild Apples," appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. The genre, which reveals an appealing emotional engagement with trees, includes narratives incorporating, though not limited to, various elements of my own tree stories and of the Charter Oak legend. These are: trees as witnesses to personal and national events, as memorials to people and places associated with them, as markers of the seasons, as landmarks, lighthouses, trail markers, and property boundaries, as soil indicators, as places of outdoor worship, as providers of shade, sustenance, beauty, and refuge, as public and private meeting places, as living legacies passed from one generation to the next and as the source of objects that have heightened interest and value because of the specific trees they were made from.

    American scenery was also attracting the attention of serious artists. Influenced by European Romanticism, a school of American artists called the Hudson River School was celebrating the scope and scale of America's natural riches and, in the process, founding our first truly national school of art. Called "priests of the natural church" by the art historian Barbara Novak—such men as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Brown Durand, Jasper F. Cropsey, and Albert Bierstadt—they converted "the [American] landscape into art" and, in the process, created an "iconography of nationalism." They produced a body of work revealing the sweeping grandeur of the American continent in such monumental canvasses as Bierstadt's Mount Whitney—Grandeur of the Rockies, as well as its more intimate treasures, such as Cole's and Church's depictions of the Charter Oak.

    Cole, who also wrote poetry condemning the widespread destruction of America's forests ("The Complaint of the Forest" and "The Lament of the Forest" for example), produced a sketch of the oak, and Church did several sketches and two paintings. As Gerald Carr, who has written the catalogue raisonné of Church's work, explains: "because it was situated only a few blocks from the family residence on Trumbull Street, Church must have passed by the Charter Oak many times during his youth, and doubtless he was nourished visually by images of the tree." Said to be "one of the first things a stranger visiting Hartford generally wishes to visit," in 1844 the tree that had preserved democracy was chosen as the backdrop for a Whig convention held "virtually beneath its branches."

    In his 1846 painting of the tree Church included two symbolic figures, presumably a mother and son, the former "passes on her knowledge of the tree to her young son who represents the next generation. The boy already has begun gathering fragments of the sacred tree." The painting was prescient. Church himself was among the collectors of the tree's fragments after it fell. The collection at Olana, his home in New York state's Hudson River Valley, includes "two partial cross sections, one of a branch and the other of a root, and a letter opener with a wooden handle, all inscribed `Charter Oak.'"

    Church, Cole, and Brownell, however, were hardly the first, or the only, artists to produce renderings of the famous tree. Ralph Earl included the tree in a 1790s portrait of Mary Wyllys Pomeroy (the tree stood on the Wyllys property), George Francis painted it, and in the 1820s "when it became the custom to decorate earthenware with printed views of historical objects and places, the tree was celebrated on china." Another "group of images is clustered in the 1830s ... [and] include[s] schoolgirl watercolors, professional oil paintings, two lithographs, and a skillful pen and ink drawing by a Hartford engraver made on the basis of exact measurements of the tree. The lithographs and the wood engraver's drawings are extremely important," decorative arts expert Robert Trent explains, "for they demonstrate that inexpensive prints of the tree were in demand among those who did not have access to a piece of it."

    Pruned of its images and artifacts, however, the Charter Oak emerges even more clearly as a storehouse of national memory. Its role in the 1687 myth of colonial legitimacy and freedom gave it fame and a new name; but this particular white oak had also served Native Americans as a council tree "under which they had met for generations," as a guide to the time for planting their corn, and as a landmark where "at flood time, they tied their canoes to its branches." Reaching even farther back, it stood as a primordial visitor, a living reminder of the vast woodlands that had once covered New England.

Trees are the oldest and the largest of all living things. For the centuries before buildings exceeded their height, trees dominated the landscape. They still do in many places. Their long life, stature, and seasonal regeneration have made them objects of wonder and worship. Some believe that the tracery of arching branches against the sky inspired the design of Europe's great Gothic cathedrals and that the quality of filtered light experienced in the forest is what stained glass is meant to duplicate. Why not? What else negotiates the space between heaven and earth as felicitously as a mature tree? Most widely revered among the trees, the oak is called Jupiter's tree because of its status as king of the forest; it is also, as Michael Pollan points out, "the tree most often struck by lightning, and so may be thought to enjoy a special relationship with the heavens." But it is a relatively recent addition to the New England ecosystem.

    The oaks and other hardwoods we consider typical of the forest joined the spruce and white pines, which were their predecessors, only about seven thousand years ago. "Based upon 162 sites with radiocarbon-dated plant-fossil sequences, [across eastern North America] late-glacial and post-glacial migrations have been reconstructed for a number of important forest trees." These reconstructions reveal that the trees with smaller, lighter seeds that can be wind-dispersed, such as spruce and pine, moved north more rapidly than the heavier-seed trees, such as hickory and oak, which are typically dispersed by birds and small mammals. Contrast, for example, the annual rate of northward migration for the oaks—slightly more than 400 feet—with that of the spruce which was advancing at almost 550 feet a year.

    The Charter Oak was a white oak (Quercus alba), a deciduous tree that can grow to 100 feet and have a crown spread that exceeds its height. The cognoscenti speak of it in superlatives. "I have selected the alba," Thomas Jefferson wrote to a French gardener to whom he was sending seeds, "because it is the finest of the whole family, it is the only tree with us which disputes for pre-eminence with the Liriodendron [the tulip tree]. It may be called the Jupiter while the latter is the Juno of our groves." And in 1884 when Charles Sprague Sargent, a Harvard professor of horticulture and director of the Arnold Arboretum, wrote the "first comprehensive synopsis of North American trees," his Silva of North America, he had this to say about the white oak:

The great size that it attains in good soil, its vigor, longevity, and stately habit, the tender tints of its vernal leaves when the sunlight plays among them, the cheerfulness of its lustrous summer green and the splendor of its autumnal colors, make the White Oak one of the noblest and most beautiful trees of the American forest; and some of the venerable broad-branched individuals growing on the hills of New England and the middle states realize more than any other American tree, that ideal of strength and durability of which the Oak has been the symbol in all ages and all civilized countries.

The first to describe the tree, according to Sargent, was the English apothecary and plantsman John Parkinson, who, in 1620, wrote of the tree as an apothecary might: "They have in Virginia a goodly tall Oke, which they call the white Oke, because the bark is whiter then of others ... the Ackorne ... is not only sweeter then others, but by boyling it long, it giveth an oyle which they keepe to supple their joynts."

    Natural historian Donald Culross Peattie writes, "if Oak is the king of trees, as tradition has it, then the White Oak, throughout its range, is the king of kings. The Tuliptree can grow taller, and the Sycamore in the days of the virgin forest had gigantic boles, but no other tree in our sylva has so great a spread.... Indeed, the fortunate possessor of an old White Oak owns a sort of second home, an outdoor mansion of shade and greenery and leafy music."

    A slow-growing tree, therefore not likely to reach old age quickly, as Oliver Rackham made clear, the oak waits until maturity to really make a statement. "Probably the largest of all the native oaks," according to Taylor's Guide to Trees, white oaks sometimes reach an exceptional size. The Wye Oak in Wye Mills, Maryland, for example, has a circumference of 382 inches (at breast height, or 4 1/2 feet above ground level) and measured 96 feet tall with a crown spread of 119 feet in 1996; its estimated age then was over 400 years. These measurements come from American Forests' National Register of Big Trees, a project initiated in 1940 to "identify and protect America's living landmarks." For fifty-four of the fifty-eight years the list has been maintained, the Wye Oak has been the undisputed champion.

    But there are older white oaks. At 515 years old, the Columbus Oak in Solebury, Pennsylvania—"so named because it predates Columbus' arrival in the Western Hemisphere"—may be one of the oldest white oaks in the eastern United States. There are even older members of the larger oak genus, Quercus, such as the Angel Oak on John's Island, South Carolina. Named after the nineteenth-century owners of the property on which it stands, the Angel Oak is a live oak (Quercus virginiana—the tree often planted along the long drives leading up to plantation homes), believed to be the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi at about fourteen hundred years old.

    It is not size and age alone, however, that have made oaks especially admired among our trees, it is also their deep roots. Sargent comments on their "thick perpendicular tap-roots penetrating deep into the ground, stout wide-spreading horizontal roots and few thick rootlets."

    This is a subject that interests me a great deal: the subject of roots. That they are hidden, of course, adds to their mystery in the same way that Salome's veils added to hers. But it is also their eternal isolation and permanence, or rootedness, that are so intriguing.

    There is much that we know. It turns out that the size of the seed dictates the form the initial root system will take. "Small seeds like birch produce a small root that grows downward." But, because the small root is not generally able to "penetrate surface leaves ... [it] is easily deflected sideways." Large seeds like acorns, on the other hand, "produce large taproots ... reminiscent of carrots ... that can penetrate leaves and grow down for a long way using the stored food."

    It also turns out that trees have been classified into three categories—deep, intermediate, and shallow—based on the depth of their roots. Oaks, of course, are with the deep-rooters, those trees like osage orange (first described by Meriwether Lewis as the result of the Lewis and Clark Expedition), hackberry, mulberry, and honey locust, with roots that typically penetrate 10 to 20 feet below the surface. In Growth and Development of Trees the plant physiologist and forest biologist T. T. Kozlowski writes of a sixty-five-year-old oak (Quercus macrocarpa) with a "taproot which extended down to 14 feet and gave rise to 30 or more large branch roots. These main branches, which varied in diameter from 1 to 7 inches, extended outward for 20-60 feet." The roots of the intermediate group—"green ash, American elm, red cedar, and box elder"—go down to 10 feet. Willow and cottonwood are examples of shallow-rooted trees.

    Oak roots have another distinguishing characteristic: their volume. Measuring root development of pines versus oaks growing on sandy soil in central Wisconsin, scientists found that pure oak forests produced 44,200 pounds of roots per acre, while the pure pine forests only produced 12,300 pounds per acre.

    The interesting thing is that when it comes down to it, however, no matter how deeply or shallowly rooted a tree might be, two things are true: first, most roots grow horizontally, not vertically; and second, most roots are concentrated in the upper six inches of soil. "Measurements from all over the world show that in forests most of the roots are concentrated in the surface layers."

    So we can eliminate our mental picture of trees as barbells standing on end. Since they need to adapt to very different environments, roots and branches do not develop the same form or a necessarily equivalent size. Even trees considered to be deep-rooted, such as oaks, do not develop a root mass equal in height (or depth) to the trunk and branches. We can also, it seems, eliminate our mental picture of trees as isolated or "discrete physiologic units, often in competition with other individuals of the same or different species." Writing in The Botanical Review, B. F. Graham, Jr., and F. H. Borman reveal that "natural root grafts occur commonly among the roots of many forest-tree species. Parallel or intersecting contiguous roots, by continuous diameter growth, develop a pressure point of contact. Near this pressure point, the characteristic vascular union [graft] becomes established." There they stand, it seems, holding hands underground.

    This means a lot to foresters. It means, for example, that a substance which is put one place in the forest can wind up somewhere else. "Translocation between grafted trees of water, dyes, radioactive isotopes, silvicides, fungus spores, and antibiotics has been demonstrated." It also provides another explanation for spacing: "The possible involvement of natural root grafting in the establishment of patterns of natural spacing in the forest has been recognized relatively recently [1961]."

    But it also means a lot to all of us because it raises some very basic questions. "Where," Graham and Borman's paper asks, "is the line drawn between an individual and the rest of the community?" Where indeed. It seems this has been a cooperative venture all along, and we were the last to find out.

On these shores Native Americans were the first to separate the trees from the forest. This was a task of more than philosophical interest to a farmer—creating fields generally means destroying forests—especially a farmer confronted with the once-dense forests of southern New England. Long before the first colonists arrived, as William Cronon points out in Changes in the Land, Native American farmers had established fields by repeatedly burning the fallen trees and underbrush. The colonists continued to use some burning to expand their fields, along with girdling and cutting of trees, and they added extensive cutting to support their lumbering. Still, remnants of the forest dotted even the cultivated landscape, and because fire had long been the method of choice for clearing, the more fire-resistant species of hickory, chestnut, and oak achieved a new dominance in the eastern countryside.

    The Charter Oak, then, was first of all a survivor of the forest—trees do not stand alone unless they are made to do so—and secondly, a valued part of the Native American landscape. To the agricultural tribes of southern New England, where corn provided about 65 percent of their caloric intake, determining the correct time for planting was crucial to survival. The cultivators were women and, according to the historian of science Carolyn Merchant, they used a variety of ecological indicators as guides: the spring runs of alewives, the position of the stars, and "the spring growth of the leaves of the white oak to the size of a mouse's ear." In the 1630s, when the land the tree stood on became the property of George Wyllys, a "deputation of Indians representing the former occupants of the place" came asking that the oak be spared. And it was. The tree, as the librarian of the Connecticut Historical Society, W. I. Fletcher, commented in 1883, thus "became an interesting link between the prehistoric and the modern."

    The request would not have seemed strange to the colonists. They, too, were an agricultural people; they understood the importance of determining the correct time to plant crops. And they were familiar with the oak. It is a tree of both the Old World and the New. Their worldview would also have promoted an affinity for the oak because of their respective positions of primacy within the Chain of Being, a philosophy that ordered their universe in a hierarchy from the lowest to the highest. "The lion we say is the king of beasts, the eagle is the chief of birds ... Jupiter's oak the forest's king ... and ... shall we not acknowledge a nobility in man of greater perfection ... and prince of these?"

    The first Europeans to settle Connecticut were the Dutch. They bought the land for their Hartford settlement from the Pequot, who claimed to have acquired it in conquest, and built a trading post there in 1633. That same year English members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony bought their land from the Nawaas and established a settlement near Hartford. By 1635, when John Winthrop arrived with the first official claim to the land on the part of the English authorities—a deed from the Earl of Warwick—three English towns surrounded the soon-to-be-abandoned Dutch trading post. Four years later these towns drafted and signed the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, incorporating provisions for governance, which provided for the election of officials, the supremacy of the General Court, and the collection of taxes. The Orders remained in effect until 1662, when Charles II issued the Connecticut Charter, a liberal document, which superseded but endorsed the limited self-government the colonists had already set up under their Fundamental Orders.

    The colonists chose to have their authority and legitimacy rest on the popular Charter for three principal reasons: first, it endorsed their own arrangements; second, they were the subjects of a crown that did not recognize native rights to land, and thus their earlier purchases would have been considered invalid; and third, they themselves had developed the concept of vacuum Domicilium, which explained and justified their appropriation of much native land on the grounds that since the indigenous peoples had not fenced or bounded their land it was "waiting to be inhabited by a more productive people." These arrangements worked as long as Charles II was on the throne, but when James II succeeded his brother, he moved to scrap the Charter and subsume Connecticut, along with all of New England, under the rule of Sir Edward Andros, his appointed governor of New York.

    What followed has become the stuff of legend. On October 31, 1687, Andros came seeking the Charter. The colonists understood that its transfer into his hands would mark the end of their limited independence. In a moment that includes the best of theater, magic, and playground strategy, the document mysteriously disappeared at the moment when it was about to be handed over, having been secreted in the oak by Captain Joseph Wadsworth. Although the event itself was magical, without its sequel the colonial action would have been a minor skirmish and not a triumph. Because in 1689, after James II fled England and William and Mary assumed the crown, Andros was displaced and Connecticut's Charter, never having been officially rescinded, was considered still valid.

    Sadly, no contemporary accounts of the event exist. The first recorded mention of the Charter Oak incident came in 1715 when the Connecticut General Assembly voted a stipend to Joseph Wadsworth for "securing" the charter "in a very troublesome season when our constitution was struck at, and in safely keeping and preserving the same ever since unto this day." Over the next ninety years the story was embellished by various accounts, most notably one in 1759 by Roger Wolcott, a former governor of Connecticut, which indicates that after the Charter was laid on the table "all the candles were snuffed out at once." In the time it took to relight the candles, the Charter had vanished. A 1797 account identified the location of the "ancient hollow tree on the property of the Wyllys family in Hartford" (had a decision been made not to go public with the location of the tree until after the Revolutionary War?), and by 1805 all of the elements of the legend were in place when Abiel Holmes, in American Annals, mentioned "the large hollow oak tree, which to this day is regarded with veneration, as the preserver of the constitution of the colony."

Why might they have chosen the oak as a hiding place? First, the tree would have suggested itself because of its visibility, its dominance over the landscape, its ability to stand alone, outside the forest and outside the deforestation enterprise the colonists were engaged in. "Venerable" and "imposing" are overused, but nonetheless appropriate, descriptors of mature oaks. Visit the superb Wye Oak to experience "venerable" and "imposing" in a tree. The Charter Oak was a vigorous survivor of both native agricultural techniques that eliminated many of the trees and of natural processes that cause trees to die. Was their action, then, symbolic of a wish to survive hostile Indians and a sometimes equally hostile environment? If the tree was outside the wilderness, the pejoratively native world, was it inside the ordered and rational human community or did it inhabit some halfway house of its own? When deciding where to hide the Charter the Connecticut colonists must have considered possible reprisals by the crown against any individual found harboring the document. This would have made the choice of a home as a hiding place very risky: the oak (nature) was neutral. Yet even in selecting a tree, they would have chosen carefully. Was the oak on the Wyllys property chosen because its owner had served as one of the original custodians of the Charter? They would have heard about Charles II hiding himself in an oak after the disastrous battle of Worcester in 1651. Would it have seemed like poetic justice to hide Charles's Charter in the same genus of tree Charles himself had taken refuge in, uniting the Old World King symbolically with the New World country? In passing the Charter to the tree were the colonists symbolically placing what they believed to be their natural rights within the larger natural order established by God?

    What is the truth? "As it happens," Pollan writes, "the etymology of the word true takes us back to the old English word for `tree.' A truth, to the Anglo-Saxons, was nothing more than a deeply rooted idea." The truth, then, is that more than thirty generations of Americans, both native and naturalized, have venerated this specific tree. The truth is that the European colonists who reached these shores had traveled far in the hope of establishing enduring roots. They encountered a population that had already done just that. I like to think there were two handshakes when the decision was made to preserve the tree: one above ground and another below.

    Maps began to note the tree's location in 1846 (during that period of seeking a cultural idiom in the landscape), and soon after it fell the two roads that intersect at the corner where it stood were renamed Charter Oak Avenue and Charter Oak Place. If you visit that eponymous intersection you will find a very small enclosed park planted with a young white oak and featuring a treelike column erected by the Society of Colonial Wars with an inscription praising the former oak for its role "as the hiding place of the Charter." If you stay long enough you will know you are at a meeting place, a place where people come and go and congregate, next to the monument, in the scant shade of the young white oak planted as a reminder of those earlier deeds.

    You and the locals and the young tree will be part of that larger natural order within which the colonists were placing their Charter, the elegant ecological order in which trees breathe out so that we can breathe in. Today America's forests are diminished, some say endangered, and almost daily bulletins remind us of the failing health of our planet. But in the City of Hartford someone has found that one way to move forward is to reclaim the past, that planting a "sprig in commemoration" is the most perfect arrangement of giving and getting in the same action.

    Recent studies done at Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes by Frances E. Kuo and William C. Sullivan of the University of Illinois's Human-Environment Research Lab indicate "signs of stronger communities where there are trees." They also show that "in buildings with trees, people report a stronger feeling of unity and cohesion with their neighbors; they like where they are living more and they feel safer than residents who have fewer trees around them." And "we are finding less violence in urban public housing where there are trees."

    The Charter Oak, then, has served as the preserver of a limited democracy, as a symbol of national identity deeply rooted in the American soil, and as a place for us to come together, to find that evanescent ideal we call community or "company," as the poet said. "To plant trees," the gardener Russell Page wrote, "is to give body and life to one's dreams of a better world." Exactly what the Charter Oak is all about.

What People are Saying About This

Michael Zuckerman
From Michael Zuckerman, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania

Gayle Samuels is a terrific writer. At her best, she veritably humanizes her trees. Simply astonishing.

P. Randolph Gray
From P. Randolph Gray, Pennsylvania State Director, The Nature Conservancy

America's forest are one of our country's great treasures. Gayle Samuels helps us see the trees and the forest in new and enduring ways.

Paul W. Meyer
From Paul W. Meyer, F. Otto Haas Director, Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania

In Enduring Roots, Gayle Samuels portrays the dynamic relationship between man and trees in a series of charming essays. Trees provide us with essential resources-food, oxygen, fuel, fiber and shelter- as well as beauty and a sense of place. Today, trees increasingly need man's active help to survive the degraded environments of our cities and suburbs. Samuels' careful research and poetic style have the power to make all of us look at the trees in our life with renewed appreciation and awe.

Lawrence Buell
From Lawrence Buell, author of The Environmental Imagination

An auspicious combination. Samuel writes in a pleasing, accessible style, with a blend of perceptiveness, aesthetic sensitivity, and factual knowledge that is edifying without being pedantic.

Jennifer Price
From Jennifer Price, author of Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America

Enduring Roots shines with elegance, intelligence, and the quest for meaning. It's a history of trees, but so much more: Samuels shows us how Americans have planted trees firmly in their own histories, to mark, understand, and celebrate places, ideas, and lives. A poetic ode to trees, these stories at once skillfully describe the complex interweaving of human and natural history. A lovely, insightful work.

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