In July of this year Asian Longhorned Beetles were found in six red maple trees in a wooded area about a mile from my house in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood. Asian Longhorned Beetles bore into hardwood trees like birch, maple, and elm, eventually killing them if left untreated. Authorities consequently set up a quarantine area that includes my street. This means no one is allowed to transport firewood or yard waste out of the area, and an inspection is being conducted within the quarantine zone. There is a particular concern for the trees of Arnold Arboretum, which lies within the quarantine area.
In 2008 there was an Asian Longhorned Beetle outbreak in Worcester, Massachusetts. The city was forced to cut down 25,000 trees. Here’s a before and after comparison:
With old trees, as with historic buildings and artifacts, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
This August in Amsterdam, the tree that Anne Frank studied (and wrote about) from her attic hideaway (adjacent to the Anne Frank House but not on its property) fell down, despite efforts since 2008 to support its weakened trunk. Its owner plans to donate parts of the tree to Jewish museums around the world.
On Boston Common, in the heart of the city, there used to be an elm tree, called the Great Elm. It was a landmark, and some people called it Boston’s Oldest Inhabitant. When a storm felled it in 1876, L. Prang & Co. printed portraits of the tree onto thin, veneer-like slices made from its trunk; Mayor Samuel Cobb even signed the image to certify its authenticity:
Another Boston tree had even greater historical significance: the Liberty Tree. During the years leading up to the American Revolution, Bostonians met under the Liberty Tree to mount public acts of protest against the British government. Unlike Boston’s indoor meeting places—Faneuil Hall, Old South Meeting House, and the Town House—anyone could witness or participate in the goings-on under the Liberty Tree, regardless of class, race, or gender. British troops cut down the tree when they occupied Boston in 1775-1776 at the beginning of the Revolutionary War.
Other cities have particular relationships with trees. Helsinki would be nothing without its birches. Every resident of Tokyo, and Washington, DC, marks the coming of spring in their city with cherry blossoms. The ombú trees in Buenos Aires are captivating, with their exposed roots and deeply shaded canopies.
So how can we more fully recognize these trees that have witnessed so much change in our cities? Artist Katie Holten organized an outdoor “Tree Museum” along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx in 2009. The main feature of her project is a cell phone audio tour, in which 100 trees “talk” through the voices of local residents from all walks of life. Organizations in San Francisco and San Jose lead walking tours of interesting trees in their cities. And the UK’s Woodland Trust has an “Ancient Tree Hunt” feature on its website that allows users to find notable trees, both urban and rural, on an interactive map, and also to nominate trees for inclusion in the Trust’s registry. Plenty of science museums have organized exhibitions about trees, but I haven’t found any history museums that have explored, in an historical context, what trees can mean to a place. I think it would be an interesting project. With hugging allowed.