From all the obituaries and eulogies, you'd think a national patriarch had fallen. In a way one had, though it was only a tree—the most

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Tinder and glory

From all the obituaries and eulogies, you'd think a national patriarch had fallen. In a way one had, though it was only a tree—the most revered tree in America, the last of the "liberty trees" under whose boughs colonial patriots gathered to foment revolution and sign constitutions. Last week, after standing a century or two longer than a tulip poplar's allotted span and getting smashed by Hurricane Floyd, the Liberty Tree in Annapolis, Maryland, was finally cut down. Three hundred mourners watched as the chain saws got to work, and the eloquence (recorded in The Washington Post and other papers) rose nearly as high as the tree itself. "We'll do our best to celebrate the great life of a venerable old friend, the symbol of America's most treasured prize," said President Christopher Nelson of St. John's College, on whose lawn the tree stood. "Here the seeds of revolution were planted for this country and the world," intoned Maryland's Governor Parris Glendening.

I followed the death watch with special fascination; I once lived in the Liberty Tree's shadow (literally), nearly perished when its bough broke (again, literally), and still remember some of its secret life—the baboon's ass and the time the Liberty tree itself got liberated. And I'm still amazed at the way we exalt trees in this country.

Croquet and revolution

Richard Nixon was president then, and I was a callow freshman in East Pinkney Hall, the dorm beside the Liberty Tree. The tree was magnificent, and the stories told about it even better: how Maryland's patriots gathered under it in the 1760s and '70s to denounce British misrule, and in 1775 to hang their Tory neighbors in effigy. How Tom Paine celebrated it (or perhaps some other liberty tree) in verse and Francis Scott Key also admired it, though he apparently didn't write any verses to it. How it escaped the fate that befell most of the other uncounted liberty trees scattered around the colonies: The British, determined to smash even arboreal forms of rebellion, chopped down every liberty tree they found. How it outlived the 19th-century schoolboys who at various times set off fires and gunpowder in its hollow trunk. How in 1982 St. John's beat its much larger next-door rival, the US Naval Academy, in a croquet match held in the Liberty Tree's shade, and went on to win a national croquet championship. Perhaps that explains the "Go Navy!" spray-painted on the tree just before its demise.

Sacred groves

The idea of that monkish little college winning any sports title is, shall we say, incongruous. So is the spectacle of a school dedicated to Great Books and eternal questions and usually scornful of history celebrating this tree's glorious history with such fervor. But something about trees seizes the imagination, and did so especially when this nation was formed. The revolution and the nation itself were consecrated under all those liberty trees. A great tree shading a village green is an enduring image of community and democracy. Schoolkids used to recite poems about the "forest primeval" and what stood "under the spreading chestnut tree" and how "only God can make a tree."

In the New World, trees filled the iconic and inspirational role that castles, shrines, tombs, and battlefields served in the old. In a young land covered with trees and lacking other sacred or distinguishing features, it was only natural that the pioneers would make monuments of them. Trees hold a special intermediate place between the animate and inanimate worlds. They're big, fixed, and monumental, but alive; ancient and enduring, but mortal. It's easy to both revere and personalize them—now as in colonial days. Consider the protesters ("tree huggers") who hang from California redwoods and Washington firs, trying to stop the chain saws. Or the Seattleites who go apoplectic when utility crews hack off branches to clear power lines or who held a vigil for the doomed poplars at Green Lake last year. Even now, "Liberty Tree" is still an icon to conjure, and market, with. There's the environmentalist Liberty Tree Alliance, the libertarian Liberty Tree catalog ("books, audio tapes, gifts, and collectibles for the free-market conservative"), and of course the Liberty Tree B&B, Liberty Tree Landscaping, Liberty Tree Software. . . .

Clones of liberty

The efforts to preserve and perpetuate the Maryland Liberty Tree have been nothing less than heroic. For 92 years, tree surgeons dug out rot and filled the hollow trunk with cement, till it was little more than a cambium glove over a concrete core. Even with the tree down, Maryland's Celebration 2000 Commission is trying to get shoots and leaf calluses to root, in hopes of planting a Liberty Tree clone in each of the other states. "Son of Liberty," a 110-year-old descendant of the great tree, stands on the other side of the St. John's campus. Another descendant is proudly displayed in London's Kew Garden; the Brits seem to have gotten over their grudge. And so democracy's sacred tree begets a dynasty.

The big red bump

For all this pomp, I can't help remembering the Liberty Tree in another light. The tree seemed downright mischievous one spring day when, as I was reclining against its trunk reading about fate and the gods, a bough crashed to earth nearby.

So perhaps it was a fitting homage to paint the first big knot on the trunk a bright red. The story went that a certain satyric-looking student (who later won enduring fame by stripping naked and playing a flute at graduation) was returning from the tavern late one night with a few well-stoked friends and noticed the fat, round bump. "That looks like a baboon's ass!" he exclaimed. "It should be red." So they painted it.

For years after that, the (unconfirmed) story continues, the grounds crew dutifully repainted the baboon's ass. That's one way traditions begin.

 
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