Lamenting the American elm tree

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(Host) Arbor Day is this Friday, and commentator Tom Slayton has been doing some reading about the tree that once characterized New England.

(Slayton) An early photograph of downtown Rutland shows an elegant street receding into the distance under a shady canopy of arching American elm trees. Today, that same street has no shade trees at all and seems stark and barren by comparison. Similarly, at the turn of the century, the dominant trees on the lawn of the Vermont State House in Montpelier were tall, vase-like elm trees. The last of those trees was cut down and hauled away in chunks after it finally gave up the ghost and succumbed to Dutch elm disease a few years ago.

As it was in Vermont, so it was throughout New England: the elms that were once practically a symbol of this region are almost all dead and gone, killed by a foreign invader – Dutch elm disease. With their absence, our landscape, especially our village and urban landscape, has utterly changed.

The story of the American elm and its singular relationship with New England’s cities and villages is told in detail in the book “Republic of Shade” by Thomas J. Campanella, just published by the Yale University Press. According to Campanella, the first New England villages were fairly barren and treeless; the forest had been cleared away, and early villagers were in no hurry to see it come back. But by the 1830s, village improvement societies began to beautify towns across the region. To do that, they most often planted elm trees, which were hardy, grew quickly, and were available as natives of every woodlot.

Soon the village elm, like the church steeple and the village green, became a symbol of New England life. The elegant trees won the admiration of workmen and aristocrats alike. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal: “I have seen many a collection of stately elms which better deserved to be represented in the General Court than the manikins beneath.” And Thoreau was but one of many New England authors who sang the praises of the elm tree.

But less than a century after Thoreau wrote, the seeds of the graceful tree’s destruction had been sown. Dutch elm disease made its way from Europe to America on diseased imported lumber in the 1930s, and quickly spread throughout most of the eastern U.S. Ironically, it appears that New England’s love for the elm tree may have helped bring about its demise. By planting elms so universally and so close together, author Campanella writes, those early city beautifiers created a monoculture – a close-knit community of elms that was exceptionally vulnerable to the highly contagious Dutch elm disease. At any rate, their story shows clearly how the loss of a single species can transform a village or a countryside with astonishing severity and swiftness.

Campanella’s book, “Republic of Shade,” is 208 pages of cultural and botanical history – a fascinating, full-length biography of and, elegy for, a beloved American tree: the late, lamented American elm.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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