E. H. Wilson and North American Trees: Oaks
As is the case with the Washington Elm and the Cushing Elm described in the previous post, many oaks also became intimately affiliated with venerable human beings and were named after them. As far as I know, an entire book about the cultural history of the oak tree in America still remains to be written, but oaks seem to have a reputation similar to elms in North America. In addition to elms, plant explorer Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) also photographed many famous North American oaks, such as the Eliot Oak. The Eliot Oak stands “a few rods east of the Unitarian Church in S. Natick [Massachusetts].” It is a very old white oak that possibly dates to at least the 1650s, and according to one legend that gives rise to its name, the Reverend John Eliot (1603-1690) preached to Indians beneath its canopy. Professor Stowe, in an address on the 200th anniversary of the town of Natick, described Eliot as “a man of great versatility, and very superior intellectual power. Doubtless he had his equals, but never a superior in Christian zeal and goodness.”
The famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) personified and commemorated this oak in his “Sonnet on Eliot’s Oak” (1877):
THOU ancient oak! whose myriad leaves are loud
With sounds of unintelligible speech,
Sounds as of surges on a shingly beach,
Or multitudinous murmurs of a crowd;
With some mysterious gift of tongues endowed,
Thou speakest a different dialect to each;
To me a language that no man can teach,
Of a lost race, long vanished like a cloud.
For underneath thy shade, in days remote,
Seated like Abraham at eventide
Beneath the oaks of Mamre, the unknown
Apostle of the Indians, Eliot, wrote
His Bible in a language that hath died
And is forgotten, save by thee alone.
These verses emphasize the human traits of the oak, as its leaves murmur loudly with “sounds of unintelligible speech,” that nonetheless communicate the word of God and the wonders of his natural world just as the preacher Eliot presumably did. Also, the final lines acknowledge Eliot’s authorship of the Algonquin Bible, the first Bible printed in America and written in the Algonquin language.
The Avery Oak is yet another oak specimen with humanized, religious associations, and Wilson also photographed it in 1923 (photograph M-21). The Avery Oak is a town icon for Dedham, Massachusetts. Dendrochronology shows that the tree actually matured fully before the town of Dedham (previously called “Contentment”) was founded in 1636. The tree was initially a center for religious meetings prior to the establishment of Parish Church in 1638, and also served as a town bulletin board for posting public notices in the 1880s. The tree almost became construction material for “Old Ironsides.” William Avery was offered 70 dollars for the tree, but declined the offer because Mrs. Avery was supposedly very attached it. Mr. Avery did, however, make a chair and table from branches dislodged in a violent thunderstorm. He presented the chair and table to the Dedham Historical Society. The Society took possession of the tree itself in 1886, and tree surgeons struggled to keep it thriving. A 1938 hurricane damaged the tree beyond repair, and in 1973 another thunderstorm finally destroyed it. Remnants of the tree are closely guarded by the Historical Society, since visitors have attempted to sneak away with bits of the tree as souvenirs. Even in its current state, this oak is still an object of desire as a vital piece of history, its fragments inciting memories and cultural associations as strong as the tree itself once inspired. Even when trees are cut down or succumb to the ravages of nature, their memory endures.
Avery, Jane Greenough. Genealogical Record of the Dedham Branch of the Avery Family in America (Plymouth: Avery and Doten, 1893).
Todd Finestone, “Avery Oak: Gone but Not Forgotten,” DT August 6, 1975, From Dedham Public Library [link]
“History of the First Congregational Church of Natick.” [link]
Hurd, Duane Hamilton. History of Middlesex County (Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis &Co, 1890).
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Complete Poetical Works (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co, 1893). [link]
Roberts, Robert C. “A Tree Above Price,” American Forests July 1969, 36 and 52. From Dedham Public Library [link]
Simmons, James Raymond. The Historic Trees of Massachusetts (Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1919).
—Miranda Mollendorf, Library Intern