Living History

The phrase “living history” usually invokes visions of chubby guys in funny costumes bent on making you taste their hardtack. There’s certainly a lot of that in and around the mid-Atlantic states, but a local news item has me thinking today about another kind of living history. George Economos of Millville, Delaware is fighting to save his century-old sycamore trees from the axe come fall 2010 when Route 26 (aka Atlantic Avenue) is slated for widening. Economos owns the trees, but it’s not their property value he’s worried about–it’s their relic value. He claims that the trees are “almost like a landmark identifying Millville as a town.” Project manager Tom Banez, who’s been charged with snaking the widened road through fifteen historic properties either listed on or eligible for the National Register, is empathetic but explains that the Delaware Department of Transportation just doesn’t recognize historic trees.

And why should they, right? After all, trees are trees and Economos is just another old grump lost in some sepia yesteryear. But look a little deeper and you’ll discover that trees hold a special place in the great pantheon of bygone objects. Take, for instance, the story of the Charter Oak. Way back in 1686, King James II sent Sir Edmond Andros across the Atlantic to firm up the crown’s authority in the colonies. In the process, Andros demanded that a handful of colonies, including Connecticut, hand over their royal charters as an act of obeisance. When Andros arrived in Hartford, the story goes, a couple of clever colonists duped him by hiding Connecticut’s charter deep inside a massive oak tree. Andros (also remembered for irritating a lot of Puritans and fleeing Boston disguised as a woman) is probobly most famous today for his involvement in this oft repeated story of proto-patriotic hijinks which, of course, is almost certainly fallacious.

But even more famous than Andros is the tree that tricked him, the so-called Charter Oak. In fact, the tree had grown so synonymous with American liberty that Connecticotians went bonkers for Charter Oak relics after a storm toppled the thing in 1856. Not only did they carve a fancy chair out of its trunk for their state house, but they also planted a miniature forest with its acorns. This is not an isolated phenomenon. All kinds of folks have been charmed by the reliquary powers of plants and trees for a long time. Here in my neck of the woods (ha…) you can visit the nation’s oldest botanical garden where John Bartram gathered together plants from throughout the colonies beginning in the 1720s. Stroll through the grounds and you’ll bump into the ancestors of flora fawned over by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Ben Franklin. Bartram even named one of his discoveries after the good Dr. Franklin. Although Franklinia Alatamaha might pale in stature to the Charter Oak or even George Economos’ sycamore trees, they all convey to those who are looking for it, the presence of the past.

And, if you still doubt the power of historic trees to invoke strong emotion, consider the massive grassroots effort raised of late to save the diseased horse-chestnut tree described fondly by Anne Frank in her famous diary. Outraged onlookers the world wide intervened in 2007 when Amsterdam officials announced their intent to fell the tree. Consequently, a court injunction saved the tree and entrusted its protection to a foundation created just for that purpose. No, I don’t think Economos is going to deter DelDOT with threats of a global media campaign. Yet, in the mix of things and trees and memories, his sycamores keep pretty good company. Good luck, George.