Trees matter in Connecticut. One of the most densely settled states, it’s surprisingly also one of the most heavily forested. There are few places where so many people live so closely to so many trees.
Recent controversy over utility and transportation department roadside tree cutting should come as no surprise to those familiar with the Charter Oak, the muscularly limbed behemoth in which Connecticut’s charter was secreted to protect it from the king’s agents in 1687. Though it fell in an 1856 summer gale, the grand tree’s image has graced everything from lottery tickets to political ads and even the state quarter. Pieces of its wood are revered as talismans. With a tree central to our political creation story, it’s no wonder that trees are valued here, perhaps more so than elsewhere.
We appreciate trees for critical environmental functions such as erosion control and clean air, foods like nuts and syrups, and versatile products from lumber to paper, but they also give structure and meaning to the places where we live. Larger, longer lived and stronger than we are, trees are often planted or venerated to commemorate community milestones. With the April groundbreaking for a memorial in Middletown that will feature a tree for each of the sixty-five soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, the custom continues.
Memorial trees with a military connection include Litchfield’s towering Colvorcoresses Oak memorializing the 1898 battle of Manila Bay. Waterbury’s “The Freedom Tree,” placed on the green in 1974, was dedicated to two men who fought in Vietnam and to all prisoners of war and those missing in action. Sometimes trees are planted in memory of the famous, such as the tall oak in Farmington center planted little more than a month after President William McKinley’s 1901 assassination. Many communities have trees honoring local people and several grow on Litchfield’s Green, among them one remembering a town politician and another for a beloved teenager. In 2002, Salisbury planted an elm for a woman killed in the World Trade Center.
Planting trees to celebrate historic events also has a rich tradition. Thirteen elms, representing the states fighting the British, were planted in West Hartford’s Elmwood section in 1777 to commemorate the American victory at Saratoga, New York. Thirteen sycamores were planted in Litchfield in 1779 by Oliver Wolcott, Jr., who would later serve as U.S. secretary of the treasury and Connecticut’s governor. Some of the trees or their replacements are growing today. The largest commemorative planting in state history was 168 pin oaks presented to delegates at the state constitutional convention of 1902 and placed in parks and churchyards, at schools and on private property. None of the recommendations were adopted by voters, leaving the trees as the convention’s sole tangible accomplishment. Fewer than half of the oaks still exist. In some communities such as Avon, Plymouth and Simsbury they are marked and celebrated. In others, they remain obscure.
Sometimes trees aren’t planted as symbols but grow into that role. The state’s largest tree, a Sycamore along the Farmington River in Simsbury, is almost 28 feet in girth and 104 feet tall. In 1965 it was dedicated to town native Gifford Pinchot, co-founder of the nation’s oldest forestry school at Yale and first chief of the U. S. Forest Service. Not far distant, the spidery-limbed Granby Oak with thick branches that both stretch to the sky and dip toward the ground is thought by many to be the state’s most picturesque tree despite sustaining storm damage in recent years. Since 1975, its profile has been emblazoned on the town seal.
Trees may endear themselves because of historic events they witnessed. Beneath the stout trunked, gnarly branched Peaceable Oak on Route 69 in Bristol, Indians met to barter goods and colonists held town meetings when the nearby tavern proved too stuffy in summer. Like the Charter Oak, some trees are so significant and beloved that monuments are dedicated to them after they’re gone. When the Washington Oak in the Gaylordsville section of New Milford died in 2003, a marker was erected along with a replacement sapling. Under the fallen tree’s branches General George Washington is said to have addressed his officers 1780.
Sprinkled throughout Connecticut, commemorative trees enliven our world with stories of the ordinary places where we go about our daily business. With care and attention, they will continue enriching the lives of those who take time to know them.
Adapted from the Hartford Courant, 4-24-14