Archive for Saturday, February 23, 2002

Trees part of federal history

February 23, 2002


A tree now barely grows in Washington, and the story behind that is a tale worth telling during Presidents' Week.

The tree was an old copper beech that, on sweltering summer days long ago, provided a few degrees of shade for a man so burdened with worries, so exhausted by heartbreak, so overwhelmed by the weight of his obligations, that his comforts were few and his indulgences infrequent.

But 140 Julys ago that tree, its branches set out like arms extended in the universal symbol of welcome, offered a few moments of relief to Abraham Lincoln.

The tree the last living link to Lincoln survived heat and storms and the willful neglect of a people too hurried in its rush to seize the future to care much about the past. Finally, the tree's stolid will gave out, victim to the passing of the years plus a drought and a fungus. A team of arborists this month pronounced the "Old Soldier," as it was called, dead but then rushed in to save it.

The arborists now are preparing to propagate remnants of the Old Soldier, assuring eternal life for a tree that has met its demise. It is e pluribus unum in reverse: Out of one, many.

Last week the tree was cut back substantially, leaving only a 15-foot trunk standing beside the small cottage that Lincoln repaired to for weeks of woe during summers of sadness. But many of its branches, some as long as 70 feet, are supporting new growth in the soil in which the bodies of the Civil War dead were buried, sometimes with Lincoln as a personal, grieving witness.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is hoping eventually to plant seedlings near the Capitol, on the White House grounds and at places around the country, such as Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln once walked and worked.

For years its setting, on the grounds of the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in northeast Washington, was one of the unknown corners of Washington, forgotten and ignored even though the site provided Lincoln with a refuge for about a quarter of his presidency, including, fatefully, the anguished time in which he worked on a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

"This is a tree that Lincoln himself valued," said Richard Moe, president of the trust. "He read the Bible and Shakespeare under it. He climbed it with his son. Its canopy provided him with comfort in the heat."

And so it turns out that historical preservation isn't only about protecting buildings from the bulldozer's bite. It's also about preserving parts of the American landscape, which, in the case of a nation planted on a continent that once was largely forest, often means trees.

Not far from Lincoln's tree, just across the line separating the District of Columbia from Maryland, stands a giant white oak tree known as the Linden Oak. It was a seedling a quarter-century before George Washington was born and, according to local legend, once sheltered the American general and his French associate, the Marquis de Lafayette.

The other day, on a cold February morning, when its branches were empty not even a bird nest lingered from the fall the Linden Oak possessed a special elegance. And the brief legend on a metal plaque had a special eloquence: It has stood its ground, survived the American Revolution and continued to serve an appreciative nation.

The Linden Oak, the second-oldest tree in Maryland, is part of history, but two decades ago it was standing in the way of progress. In this classic struggle of forces, history won one of its rare victories. When the route for Greater Washington's rapid-transit system was established, the tracks made a wide curve in the Grosvenor section of Montgomery County, swerving around the tree.

In the case of Lincoln's tree, progress (plus a quirk of botany) saved the day.

The beech branches that drooped from the tree eventually touched the soil. And at the point where they had contact with the hallowed ground of Lincoln's retreat, they sprouted root systems of their own. They survive a tree that in turn survived the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, various skirmishes of the Cold War, the Gulf War and even the anti-terrorism war.

The branches produced a grove of genetically identical saplings. Lincoln's tree may be dead, but in a way the Old Soldier, like the Linden Oak, will live on in the American soil like the thoughts, hopes and prayers Washington and Lincoln planted in the American soul when the trees, and the country, were young.

David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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