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Hope Sprouting Beneath Lonely Hartford Elm

JARED EDWARDS

February 07, 2010

The tree is easily recognized from I-84, standing in splendid isolation, surrounded by parking lots. This barren landscape also contains the once-proud Italianate style Isham-Terry House and the blown-out shell of the former Henry Barnard School.

The great tree, called the High Street Elm, is a focal point in the derelict area in Hartford's center city north of the highway, an urban archaeological site left by the planners of the 1960s. Yet it is a great tree. It could be a symbol of hope.

On these pages a few years ago, Toni Gold defined our sense of place in this way: "Place matters because 'place' is more than a geographical term; it is an emotional one as well. And places have meanings that are given to them by people whether they are elaborate architectural edifices or beloved landscapes." Or, we may add, trees.

For centuries, notable trees have influenced residents of Hartford. The oldest example we know of in Connecticut, dating from well before the time of European settlement, may be the Charter Oak, which survived until it was blown down in 1856. One hundred twenty-five years ago, a park commissioner recorded with his camera some other surviving examples of Hartford trees that were colossal in size and age. None survived the 1938 hurricane, but their surviving images confirm the historical record from the 18th century that describes these giants as unique features in the Connecticut Valley. Perhaps we are haunted by their loss today and that is why we are so moved when we see the High Street Elm.

The Connecticut Historical Society's database, "Connecticut Towns," includes many digital images of Connecticut's notable trees. Among them are the Ledyard Elm, the Lebanon Elm, the Beckley Elm in Berlin (then part of Wethersfield), as well as the famous Wethersfield Elm.

Since the beginning of the society's General Photography Collection, images of distinctive Connecticut trees were included. This suggests that memorable trees have been an integral part of the public's perception of historic preservation. They obviously evoke times past. They have drawn special attention from historians and those seeking surviving relics from the past. They are very large, seemingly permanent objects, which traditionally have been associated with events or persons important in our history.

If the elm on High Street cannot quite match the lost giants of the past, how does it compare to other living specimens in the state? The Notable Tree Committee, an outgrowth of the "Connecticut's Notable Trees" project of the Connecticut Botanical Society, visited the tree recently and quantified it for its records. Since 1985, members of this team have traveled the state with cameras and measuring instruments to find every notable example they could. They have established that the High Street elm is 79 feet tall with a canopy spread of 95 feet and a trunk circumference in excess of 15 feet. According to their data, it ranks as the sixth-largest American elm reported in the state.

This single elm tree on High Street stands tall and graceful against the sky. It can be a symbol of hope. The former school is being rebuilt as the city's new public safety building. If this triggers more development, development that reconnects this area to the downtown of which it was once a part, the tree will have the context it deserves.

Should we consider renaming it "The Hartford Elm?"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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