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When every town had its Elm Street

Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm, Thomas J. Campanella, Yale University Press: 228 pp., $35

May 25, 2003|Witold Rybczynski | Witold Rybczynski is the author of numerous books, including "A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century."

When Charles Dickens visited New Haven during his 1842 tour of the United States, he thought it one of the most beautiful cities he had ever seen, "a kind of compromise between town and country; as if each had met the other half-way and shaken hands upon it." This bucolic effect was largely the result of the city's streets, which were lined with lofty, spreading trees -- American elms. The trees had been planted between 1786 and 1800, during the so-called Great Planting, when a civic-minded citizen, James Hillhouse, initiated a beautification campaign paid for by public subscription. As a result, New Haven became widely known as the City of Elms (so, later, did Buffalo).

Today, New Haven and Buffalo are beautiful no longer. The causes of their decline are many -- the loss of industry and employment, the flight to the suburbs, the collapse of downtown. They are also no longer cities of elms. In the early 1930s, Dutch elm disease, which had ravaged Europe for the previous decade, appeared in America (the fungus brought over in logs used for making furniture). Over the next 40 years the epidemic destroyed most of the urban elms in the United States. Their memory survives in the many Elm Streets, although the name is now more likely to conjure up images of Freddy Krueger, the protagonist of an infamous series of horror films, than of the majestic Ulmus americana.

The rise and fall of the American elm is the subject of Thomas J. Campanella's fascinating new book, "Republic of Shade." It is remarkable that no one has previously thought to write a history of this American icon, but we are lucky to have waited, for in Campanella the elm has a far-reaching historian, a beady-eyed researcher and a sympathetic chronicler. He restricts the scope of his inquiry to New England, the region where what one might call the cult of the elm originated.

When New England was settled in the 17th century, trees were generally removed, either as the land was cleared for agriculture or as part of logging operations. Individual elms, on the other hand, were often left standing. There were several reasons for this: The tough and fibrous wood of the American elm, unlike its European counterpart, had little commercial value; unlike oak, maple or birch, elm wood was not useful for either building or boat construction. A mature elm was a large tree, so it was less work to leave it standing, particularly as it generally grew singly rather than in groves. So-called pasture elms provided shade and shelter for livestock.

As Campanella tells the story, the cult of the elm had several incarnations. House elms -- solitary giants in the frontyard of farmhouses -- were a common New England sight. In many cases, houses were built under the sheltering tree, which typically grows 30 or 40 feet straight up before spreading into a glorious canopy. Unlike oaks and chestnuts, elms have small leaves that do not entirely block the sun from the ground below, which made them good yard trees.

Sometimes house elms were planted to commemorate family events; pairs of trees were called bridal elms. Elms were also planted in New England town commons. The trunk of a mature elm is easily 10 or 12 feet in diameter and more than 120 feet high, so these huge public trees eventually assumed the role of landmarks and civic monuments. They were also totems of a sort, usually named after the town: the Pittsfield Elm, the Great Elm of Springfield, the Great Elm of Boston Common. The Tree of Liberty, another Boston elm, was the site of many political demonstrations and a popular symbol during the War of Independence.

Campanella evocatively calls these elms witness trees. New Haven had the Benjamin Franklin Elm, which was planted on the day of the great man's death; Kennebunk had the Lafayette Elm, which stood in front of a house where the general had stayed during his triumphal tour of 1824. But the most famous New England tree was the Washington Elm on Cambridge Common. Below its spreading branches, the story went, the general had assumed command of the Revolutionary Army, following the engagements at Lexington and Concord. The tree finally fell in 1923. Like a holy relic, the Washington Elm found a second life: Fragments were sent to state governors, gavels made from its wood were presented to the senate and house of representatives of each state, a cross-section of the trunk was sent to Mount Vernon.

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