Today is Flag Day in the United States, and anyone out and about is bound to encounter more than the usual displays of Old Glory. But inspired by patriotic enthusiasm and the sheer simplicity and beauty of the design, some flags are painted on trees, boulders, cliffs buildings and other objects where they are literally embedded in our landscape. They can be viewed on any day, at any hour and in any weather. Like ancient pictographs found in caves and on rock faces, the flag is a powerful symbol brimming with meaning that goes beyond the capacity of mere words to convey. The urge to paint it into our landscape is often irresistible.
Perhaps the longest lived of these flags here in Connecticut is Haddam’s Flag Rock on twisty Candlewood Hill Road. It’s a big dumpling of a glacial boulder, grayish pink and uneven, and was once the pulpit of an itinerant preacher. In a thickly treed area busy with houses, the flag is a little faded but still clearly rendered on a staff. Taking advantage of the uneven rock, it looks as if it is waving in the breeze. According to the local historical society, it was first painted shortly after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and boasted 48 stars and gold flagpole with tassels. Since the 1976 bicentennial, it has featured the ring of 13 stars found on our earliest flags.
Near Dodgingtown a single flag is artfully painted on the trunks of six slender trees standing in close proximity to each other. Shaped in accordance with the size and bent of the trunks and the uneven spaces between them, it’s a work of art that captivates the eye and captures the imagination.
In the pantheon of American holidays perhaps none is so commonly forgotten as Flag Day. No one has the day off from work or school and there are few commemorative ceremonies. It’s even forgotten on some calendars. Yet June 14 is the date the Stars and Stripes was adopted as a national symbol by the Continental Congress in 1777.
Here in Connecticut we have a special connection to this largely forgotten holiday that was first suggested in 1861 by George Morris of Hartford at the outset of the Civil War. The Hartford Courant took up the cause, and on June 14 of that year editorialized “that such an observation of the day would increase our love and our loyalty to the Stars and Stripes.” But it was not until Wisconsin schoolteacher Bernard J. Cigrand began advocating for the holiday in the late 1880s that the notion took off. The June 14 commemoration was established by presidential proclamation in 1916 and cemented by an act of Congress in 1949.
Once I started looking, I found flags embedded throughout our landscape. Perhaps the largest is on the cliffs of Bolton Notch high above the eastern terminus of I-384 where, following the contours of the rock, it seems to be waving in a stiff breeze. Unfortunately, the flag shares space with years of colorful, if somewhat inartistic graffiti. In the time since it was first painted, trees have grown to obscure the stars and stripes during the leafy part of the year. In summer, only a flash of red and white are visible through the greenery.
Not all painted flags are on natural objects, and once there was a house on U.S. Route 7 in Kent with a flag facade. Decorated like Old Glory following the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, the structure has since changed hands and has been conventionally repainted. On South Windsor’s Pleasant Valley Road, not far from the junction with broad, commercial U.S. Route 5, a small grassy field is guarded by a series of bell shaped concrete barriers, one of which is painted in a flag motif. It’s a bit faded, but stands out among its drab brethren.
Perhaps my favorite flag is painted is on a gently sloping ledge near the Rhode Island border in Sterling, where it reflects on an impoundment of the Moosup River. Surrounded by laurel, the ledge is painted with a 13 star flag on a staff in a background of clouds and blue sky where a bald eagle is flying. A bright rainbow divides the image and passes behind the flag. It’s a stunning sight, amped by the image’s reflection in the water. The flag was first painted almost 35 years ago by local textile worker Bruce Glaude who was distressed by graffiti and wanted to improve the site. Combining patriotism with a reference to the hopeful message of “The Wizard of Oz,” he continues to touch up the image each year.
Much has changed since the days when ancient people painted pictographs on rock faces, but the urge to express ourselves remains constant. Usually we choose a more ephemeral canvass like cloth or paper, but sometimes the old desire to embed our ideals in the landscape leads to flags painted where all can see.