A few weeks ago I was on Beacon Hill to run an errand, and snapped a quick shot of the Shaw Memorial elms in the rain:
It was a soggy, cold day, and I was fast getting soaked, so I didn’t cast around for a better shot. These elms have been standing on Boston Common, across from the Massachusetts State House, for centuries now. This State House (for a long time known as the “New State House”, so as not to confuse it with the original State House on Court Street) was built between 1795 and 1798; the elms date at least to that time, if not to a couple of decades before then.
Elms are a fast growing tree, and before the onslaught of elm bark beetles that brought Dutch elm disease to these parts, Boston Common had a thriving population of elms. (For a good look at the role of the American Elm in history since colonial times, see Tom Campanella’s fine book, Republic of Shade.) The elm stand has been so reduced that now only a few specimens remain; I remember in the summer of 1997 or ’98 watching as a row of elms below the Common cemetery was taken down, tree by tree, as the disease raced from one end of the row to the other.
Henry Davis, owner emeritus of Lowden Tree (now part of SavATree), was landscape consultant to the Friends of the Public Garden for over forty years, and he was responsible for developing the treatment regimen that aimed to save elms as long as possible. Using a combination of pruning and tree injections, he was able to preserve quite a few elms for quite a long time, including these Shaw Memorial trees.
The trees are rooted in the sloping ground now covered by Augustus St. Gaudens’s Robert Gould Shaw Memorial and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, which commemorates the first documented black regiment formed in the north during the Civil War. The memorial, which includes a two-story retaining wall and St. Gaudens’s relief sculpture, is itself flanked by two broad granite stairways. The elms rise out of a vault under the memorial; maintenance on the lower trunk and roots is performed from inside the vault.
If you saw the last post in this blog, you may understand the thinking behind maintaining the Shaw Memorial elms in this way. These two trees are two of the oldest trees on the Common, and stand as witnesses to American Constitutional history.
A few days after I took the first photo, I spoke to Norm Helie, who now guides the Common’s tree maintenance. Norm told me that he had just had further top weight taken out of the Shaw elms, and the pruning cuts had removed tissue down to sound wood. I made my way down to the Common, and took some more photos — on this day, a demonstration in front of the State House prevented me from repeating the rainy day shot angle, but I was able to get a photo of the new cuts and the State House, to boot: