When the U.S. mint began releasing state quarters, my favorite was the 1999 Connecticut quarter. Until I saw this quarter, I did not know about Connecticut’s Charter Oak, but the beauty of this quarter is striking and demands further inquiry.
The Charter Oak is one of two trees connected with America’s move to independence. Located in Hartford, it was a white oak tree that germinated at least two centuries before Columbus first arrived on this continent. So it was an old tree when Connecticut was young.
Even in the seventeenth century, easily 100 years before the Revolution, tensions on these shores were rising. Connecticut, which had been granted a liberal charter by King Charles II, 25 years later did not appreciate a revision of its autonomy by James II, Charles’s successor. One way or another — history is uncertain — the hollow in the old Charter Oak became a convenient hiding place for Connecticut’s original charter.
The tree was destroyed by wind just before the Civil War, but its descendents, memory and furniture crafted from it live on.
A much younger tree also had Revolutionary significance. The Liberty Tree was an elm planted in 1646 along the only road into Boston. But it was already “old” just as Boston was unfolding as the symbolic center of the American Revolution. The Liberty Tree was a popular gathering place, and an effigy of loyalist and stamp tax collector Andrew Oliver was hung there.
While Oliver was never lynched, the tree became identified with a sort of mob violence democracy that formed part of the underbelly of the revolutionary spirit. As the British attempted to cut down the revolution, they literally cut down the Liberty Tree, but it was too late. The young nation had been galvanized.
These trees show that trees can become elevated in a society. In an article titled, “Rituals, Ceremonies, and Customs Related to Sacred Trees With a Special Reference to the Middle East,” Amots Dafni documents that most customs related to sacred trees are widespread across the world. A few of these customs, including social gatherings, meting out of justice, and even the hanging of rags took place on the Liberty Tree. Yet in today’s American society, other than the annually-replaced Rockefeller Christmas tree, I cannot think of any instance of a culturally-central tree. There may be several good reasons for this lack.
But the human-tree connection still raises important points. Trees often outlive most individuals and even societies, so they are dignified with statesman status. Trees are the tallest growing thing, directing human attention heavenward and showing humans their restricted place in the universe. Trees bring people together. Society is more than a collection of individuals. In the case of the Liberty Tree, at a social level, we are reminded of issues of both democracy and the rule of law.
JOSHUA ARP IS AN ISA-CERTIFIED MUNICIPAL SPECIALIST, CLARKS SUMMIT’S MUNICIPAL ARBORIST AND AN OPERATOR OF AN ORGANIC LAWN AND LANDSCAPE MAINTENANCE BUSINESS. REACH HIM AT JOSARHUAP@AOL.COM.