E.H. Wilson and North American Trees, Elms
In the previous blog post about trees and their biographies, I wrote about how English plant collector and photographer Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) sometimes gave trees human attributes, using language that personified them and telling their stories in his photographs and books. This happens to an even greater extent with an iconic North American tree: the elm. Bostonians probably take elms for granted today. Ironically, precisely because they are so prevalent, I never thought about their history myself. In my quest to find the most rare and unusual things to study, I failed to see what was so special and unique about oaks and elms until I began to research and catalogue Wilson’s historical photos at the Arboretum. I learned very quickly that rare and unusual trees do not always have the most interesting histories, but sometimes commonplace trees do. It was a valuable academic lesson for me to learn that sometimes we can find the most special and wonderful traits in the most familiar, ordinary objects if we realize that what is “unusual” or “commonplace” is completely relative, and if we maintain a sense of intellectual curiosity about the things that we see every day.
Thomas J. Campanella wrote about the rich cultural associations of the elm in American society in his 2003 book, Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm. Campanella calls our attention to the fact that the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927), referred to the elm as a tree that invoked great feelings of affection in the hearts of New Englanders. The elm tree is native to the eastern half of the United States, and it flourished as colonists settled into New England. This tree also began to invoke historical, cultural, and sentimental associations, and these trees were frequently planted to commemorate people or events, to signify places of worship, to mark weddings or the birth of a child, and as comforting shelter from the harsh elements.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the Ulmus americana (American elm) is the very first tree E.H. Wilson photographed in his North American series (photographs M-1 and M-2), depicting one of the magnificent old elm trees that lined the main road in Groton, Massachusetts. Some of the oldest elms in Groton began growing on the main street and on private property in 1740, and seemed to become a source of civic pride. The American elm later became a state symbol in 1941. These photographs of American elms, dating to October 12, 1923, were also taken contemporaneously with the fall of the George Washington Elm in Cambridge, MA, on October 26, 1923. The George Washington Elm was also a specimen of American white elm with a sentimental, patriotic history. Although the tree in the photographs clearly is not the George Washington Elm, there were deliberate attempts to connect all other American elms to it. The George Washington Elm was fancifully perceived as the original patriarch of all the other American elms. Many telephone calls and letters about this species were directed to the Arnold Arboretum in the 1920s and 1930s. The inquiries focused on “the genuineness of the plants offered as the progeny of the tree popularly associated with George Washington,” who legendarily assumed command of the American Army under the shade of the tree in 1775.
Wilson also photographed another famous elm, the Cushing Elm (photograph M-9). The Cushing Elm is situated on the south shore of Boston, near the portion of Hingham lying just south of Nantasket Junction near the Cohasset town line. It is situated on East Street, on what was called the “Rocky Nook”. Aesthetically, the Cushing Elm was considered a very large and symmetrical tree, which Wilson captured nicely with his characteristic style of arboreal photography. Wilson’s favorite photographic technique involved creating a composition with a centrally-placed tree and a small figure placed next to it to indicate scale. This type of composition and stylistic convention, which Wilson used in so many of his photographs, especially accentuates the Cushing Elm’s celebrated symmetry and size. Similar to the Washington Elm, the Cushing Elm has an extremely colorful and patriotic history. The Daughters of the American Revolution put the following inscription on the tree: “Under this tree in 1775/Pastor John Brown preached to a company of Cohasset soldiers/ of Col. Greaton’s Regiment which/ Served in the siege of Boston.” Captain Stephen Cushing, who was a farmer, proprietor of a large landed estate, and selectman by trade, planted the tree in 1729 near the old colonial house he’d inherited from his father Peter Cushing in 1715. Originally the tree was planted on the Cushing’s property, but it was eventually transplanted across the street. On July 25, 1839, the tree measured 13 feet in circumference, and the branch span at its fullest was over 90 feet. There were eight large main branches, and it was 60-70 feet tall, according to George B. Emerson, who measured the tree in the company of botanist William Oakes, who probably served as an eyewitness. In 1919, when Simmons’ book was published, the dimensions increased considerably. He said that only one of the 8 main branches had died, the spread of the branches was over 100 feet, and the circumference was 16.5 feet. In the photographic detail of the Cushing Elm (M-10), one of the main branches is clearly severed at the left. In many ways, Wilson’s photographs of the Cushing Elm show the tree’s incredible size and abundance, but also its vulnerability.
Both the Washington Elm and the Cushing Elm were named after historical figures, connecting the trees to famous human beings and legendary tales associated with them. This practice extended to oak trees photographed by Wilson, the subject of the next post.
Campanella, Thomas J. Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Green, Samuel Abbott. The Natural History and Topography of Groton. Groton, 1912.
“The Cambridge Washington Elm,” Arnoldia. Dec. 10, 1931. Series 3, Vol. V, no 18. [link]
Pane-Joyce Genealogy website [link]
Simmons, James Raymond. “The Cushing Elm,” in The Historic Trees of Massachusetts. Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1919.
—Miranda Mollendorf, Library Intern