It was called the Big Old Elm, or just B.O.E., the affectionate nickname given it by the neighbors who so dearly loved that tree. For 135 years this stately seven story high elm tree claimed Boston’s Marlborough Street, in the Back Bay, as its home. Such American elm trees (ulmus Americana) have marked this part of the world for thousands of years. Known for their graceful umbrella like canopies and the heights to which they can soar, the trees are loved for their longevity too, some living to 200 years or more.
But last week, B.O.E. had to come down. She was the victim of Dutch elm disease, a beetle borne fungus that has killed most of the American elms in North America. A stump now sits where she once stood so proud. A neighborhood mourns and yet: what a long life she lived!
When the tree came into the world, and that diminutive sapling first reached up to heaven for life giving sunlight and down into the soil for life giving water, her new home was marked by the “clop, clop” of horse hooves, carriages traveling up and down Marlborough Street. Boston was America’s fifth largest city. The new American President Chester A. Arthur championed civil service reform. The Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress ended all immigration from China. Boston’s baseball team the Red Stockings, had great hopes for the coming season at the South End Grounds on Columbus Avenue. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was in its first year. Mayor Samuel Abbott Green established the Franklin Fund to purchase land for Franklin Park. The poem “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman, was banned as obscene, by the city council.
Many of the folks living then, who walked by the tree each day, on the way to work or school, no doubt imagined that their time in history, that time in history: it was an unprecedented epoch. Some celebrated it as a golden age: the city booming, electricity for every home, soon on the way. Others knew it as a time of great troubles: immigrants and refugees discriminated against by the blue bloods. “No Irish Need Apply” signs hanging in the windows.
People were born. People lived amazing and anonymous lives. People died. Time passed. And the tree grew.
For almost five generations, the tree stretched limbs upward, its leaves providing shade, as folks moved in and moved out of the brick townhouse at number 284. Babies were birthed in the third floor bedroom of that home. Children watched the leaves turn and drop and marveled when the tree bloomed all green and new again, come the spring. Lovers stole secret kisses in the shadow of its trunk. A soldier leaned against the tree’s wide girth, smoking a cigarette, before rushing off to catch a train, to go and fight in a war that would end all wars.
And the tree grew, a silent witness to the thousands of souls who strode past it daily: through bone chilling winters, and resurrection Aprils, sweltering summers and bittersweet autumns.
Snow piled up against the tree and then melted away. The weight of rushing streetcars shook its base and later, the blue smoke of car exhaust wafted up through its branches. The strong roots of the tree pushed at the bricks that encircled it; red rectangles scattered by the power of that living God made creation. Friends used the tree as a meeting place: “Look for me under the big tree just around the corner from Fairfield Street!” The tree’s relatives, scores of American elms which once graced the street from end to end, began to die, one by one, until finally she was the last of her kind.
One last hold out. One final survivor.
And then on February 8th, 2017, folks with chain saws arrived in bright yellow bucket trucks and over the course of a chilly and rainy winter’s day, took down that tree, limb by limb, as a crowd of brokenhearted witnesses watched in mute sadness.
Oh, to be such a tree! To stand up, true and tall, through so much time. To somehow possess the wisdom of the world within your one strong and scarred body. Humbled but never broken by the march of history, with all its triumphs, its defeats, its weight. Faithful in the time that God plants us on this earth. Trusting in the goodness of existence, right up until the day that we breathe our last, and then return to the soil which gave us birth.
Rest in peace, Big Old Elm. We will miss you.