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Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm
Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm
Thomas J. Campanella
Yale University Press, 2003
240 pp., 45.00

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Douglas Jones

Reading Trees

God can be so cruel in his mockery of us. Who would have thought that divine laughter could sound like fungal growth? Or that a history of elms could reveal God's disdain? Yet that appears to be one reading of the history of the American elm that Thomas Campanella traces in his Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm. Campanella himself, of course, is not at all concerned with this sort of theological question, offering an engaging but tame chronicle of the elm. But the more pressing issue is, why have several centuries of Christian reflection barred these sorts of exegesis-of-nature questions from discussion?

Imagine a medieval Christian mind taking in a book like Republic of Shade. That mind would already carry a wide and serious commitment to the Psalmist's declaration, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard" (Ps. 19:1-3). We tend to read this as encouraging a vague, greeting-card appreciation of nature, but the medieval imagination was more risky and specific. Mountains speak. Water sings. Trees talk, and they won't shut up. Medievals weren't frozen by fear of Enlightenment snickering or duped into mathematizing creation. All of creation was a poem.

Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative and Henri du Lubac's series on medieval exegesis go a long way toward showing how the church's embrace of Enlightenment hostility to imagination undermined the more playful medieval tradition. But it really takes something like James Jordan's underground theological classic Through New Eyes to appreciate how a mind steeped in biblical typology might begin reading trees. In typological terms, trees in Scripture act like giant words, expressing not only the general glory of God but also more specific themes. Both trees and saints come out of the ground. Both grow on riverbanks (Ps. 1) and bring food and medicine to the world; "their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing" (Ez. 47:12; cf. Rev. 22:2). Jotham preached "the trees once went forth to anoint a king over them," and the blind man healed began to see men as trees walking. Trees are images of humans, and they reflect our own fruitfulness, hubris, and decay.

And God manifests himself at trees—"arboreal theophanies," Jordan says—like those in Eden and in front of Moses but also in the careful wood of the Tabernacle and Temple, which create grand images of God's people gathered around him. The entire Davidic line is pictured as a tree, a root, a stump, a branch (Is. 42; 6:13; 11:10) that ultimately develops into Christ, the vine, the tree of life, executed on a tree, having threatened fire to "every tree which does not bear good fruit" (Mt. 3:10). Christ Himself doesn't hesitate to urge us to read trees wisely: "Now learn this parable from the fig tree" (Mt. 24:32).

Learn from the tree? Why does that directive not show up regularly in seminary hermeneutics courses? We go to great pains to teach seminary students about exegeting Scripture and secret Foucauldian power structures, but we leave them largely clueless about exegeting nature.

Campanella himself does a wonderful job pinpointing many of the meanings early America found in the elm. Thoreau, Trollope, Dickens, Holmes, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Wharton, and O'Neill all paid special attention to the American elm, Ulmus americana. Henry Ward Beecher gushed that the elms of New England "are as much a part of her beauty as the columns of the Parthenon were the glory of its architecture" and that no other tree "unites, in the same degree, majesty and beauty, grace and grandeur, as the American elm."

Colonial homesteaders dragged elms in from swamps and used them symbolically as "bridal trees," and Native Americans offered elms as trees of friendship. The elm took on its grandest symbolism when it became the image of colonial political resistance, a harness in Boston for hanging British tax officers in effigy: the Liberty Tree. Each of the 13 original colonies also went on to designate elms or artificial equivalents as Liberty Trees, a symbol that was even transplanted to France via Tom Paine for Jacobin use.

Whether in the Puritan, colonial, or Romantic periods, the elm played a special role in differentiating the United States from Europe. Oliver Wendell Holmes ridiculed the foreign Lombard trees near his boyhood home because they suggested "vague hints of dead Pharaohs." Andrew Downing, a key figure in the spreading elm devotion, asked "what should we think of Italians, if they should foreswear their own orange trees and figs, pomegranates and citrons, and plant their streets and gardens with the poison sumac of our swamps?" Why, then, should we "fill our lawns and avenues with the cast off nuisances of the gardens of Asia and Europe?"

In part, this differentiation from the Old World came as a reaction against the city, long considered morally deficient. Cities were associated with European tyranny and mob rule, and rapid urban expansion in the United States during the mid-19th century only exacerbated antiurban concerns. Campanella cites the Boston clergyman Nehemiah Adams, writing in 1838, as reflective of the time:

Let us forsake, a while, the noisy streets, and the ceaseless hurry of business, for a more quiet sphere of thought… . [A] treeless city is too much like a desert. We feel oppressed, by the monotonous dominion of brick and mortar… . Men cannot bear to be always shut up from the inspiration of God's works. He must gaze on the trees … or his spirit will faint within him.

Yet while using elms to distance themselves from Europe, earlier Americans had always been conscious of being the babies on the block. We needed some history in order to have moral credibility. Garden-cities helped overcome that dilemma as well. Trees could give the appearance of age without having earned it. In fact, the elm was the fastest growing native tree. Andrew Downing, again, explained that "if we have neither old castles nor old associations, we have at least old trees that can teach us the lessons of antiquity, not less instructive and poetical than the ruins of a past age." Through elms, the hope was that a town might actually "instill in the youth that love of beauty and morality which would enable him to withstand the attraction of urban wealth and vice." No wonder Old Testament groves had to be torn down.

This yearning for early respectability took on an even more comical drive when observers realized that parallel columns of tall, arching elms could create the semblance of a Gothic cathedral—or, as Longfellow noted, under the "arches of the elms, … the trees themselves more than ever become like columns and ribbed ceilings of churches." Moreover, with characteristic American hubris, Montgomery Meig declaimed that a "noble sylvan temple could be constructed in less time than the great cathedrals of Europe," and "in a few years, a temple of unequaled gothic tracery would rise into the air like Solomon's, without sound of hammer or tool of iron."

Such impatient sentimentalism couldn't last. The rise of civil romanticism and the lust for the new independence would fail. Dutch elm disease first reared its head in the forests of Europe ravaged by World War I, then advanced across the Atlantic to attack the American elm population. As public works projects popped onto the scene in a Rooseveltian wave, the cry to save the elms appealed to the can-do fervor of the era.

Yet within a generation, 200 years of elms had disappeared from the American scene, millions upon millions of trees. Once considered a "trash tree," the most useless piece of vegetation in the forest, then the icon of everything America wanted—freedom, independence, patriotism, pastoralism, sublimity, and speed—the elm was reduced to nothing but a stump, an icon of mockery. As Campanella observes in passing, "smaller plants may feed and sustain us, but in trees we see ourselves." Learn this parable from the elm tree.

Douglas Jones is a senior fellow of philosophy at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho, and senior editor of Credenda/Agenda magazine.

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