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Thoreau and the Language of Trees$

Richard Higgins and Robert D. Richardson

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780520294042

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520294042.001.0001

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Death of a Concord Kingpost

Death of a Concord Kingpost

Chapter:
(p.139) Death of a Concord Kingpost
Source:
Thoreau and the Language of Trees
Author(s):

Richard Higgins

Richard Higgins

Publisher:
University of California Press
DOI:10.1525/california/9780520294042.003.0015

Abstract and Keywords

Four men, cutting at once, began to fell the big elm at 10 a.m., went to dinner at 12, and got through at 2:30 p.m. They used a block and tackle with five falls, fastened to the base of a buttonwood, and drawn by a horse, to pull it over the right way; so it fell without harm down the road. One said he pulled twenty turns. I measured it at 3 p.m., just after the top had been cut off. It was 15 feet to the first crotch. At 75 feet, the most upright and probably highest limb was cut off, and measured 27 inches in circumference. As near as I could tell from the twigs on the snow, and what the choppers said who had just removed the top, it was about 108 feet high. At 15 feet from the stump, it divided into two parts, about in equal size. One was decayed and broken in the fall, being undermost, the other (which also proved hollow) at its origin was 114/12 feet in circumference. (The whole tree directly beneath this crotch was 19 3/12 round.) … I could count pretty well 105 rings....

(p.140) The Felling of a Great Elm

Four men, cutting at once, began to fell the big elm at 10 a.m., went to dinner at 12, and got through at 2:30 p.m. They used a block and tackle with five falls, fastened to the base of a buttonwood, and drawn by a horse, to pull it over the right way; so it fell without harm down the road. One said he pulled twenty turns. I measured it at 3 p.m., just after the top had been cut off. It was 15 feet to the first crotch. At 75 feet, the most upright and probably highest limb was cut off, and measured 27 inches in circumference. As near as I could tell from the twigs on the snow, and what the choppers said who had just removed the top, it was about 108 feet high. At 15 feet from the stump, it divided into two parts, about in equal size. One was decayed and broken in the fall, being undermost, the other (which also proved hollow) at its origin was 114/12 feet in circumference. (The whole tree directly beneath this crotch was 19 3/12 round.) … I could count pretty well 105 rings.

… I judged that there were at least seven cords then in the road, supposing one main limb sound, and Davis thought that the pile in the yard, from the limbs taken off last week, contained four more. … In some places the trunk as it lay on the ground was as high as a man’s head.

Death of a Concord Kingpost

A condemned Concord street tree, the tree warden’s ruling nailed to its bark. The 165-year-old red oak was felled in 2010. Its main limbs severed, the tree calmly awaits its fate as a crane lowers a noose.

(p.141) … This tree stood directly under the hill, which is some sixty feet high, the old burying hill, south of where the flagstaff was planted when the British marched into town. This tree must have been some fifty years old and quite sizable then. … [It] was so sound I think it might have lived fifty years longer; but Mrs. Davis said that she would not like to spend another such a week as the last before it was cut down. They heard it creak in the storm. One of the great limbs which reached over the house was cracked. The two main limbs proved hollow.

Journal, JANUARY 21, 1856

Death of a Concord Kingpost

Workers from Calvary Tree Service wait for a Druid, whom a passerby had asked to come and offer a final prayer.

(p.142) The Measure of the Davis Elm

Measured again the great elm in front of Charles Davis’s on the Boston road, which he is having cut down. The chopper, White, has taken off most of the limbs and just begun, tried his axe, on the foot of the tree. He will probably fall it on Monday or the 21st. At the smallest place between the ground and the limbs, seven feet from the ground, it is 15 feet, 2 inches, in circumference; at one foot from the ground on the lowest side, 23 feet and 9 inches. White is to have ten dollars for taking off the necessary limbs and cutting it down merely, help being found him. He began on Wednesday. Davis and the neighbors were much alarmed by the creaking in the late storms, for fear it would fall on their roofs. It stands two or three feet into Davis’s yard.

Journal, january 19, 1856

Death of a Concord Kingpost

The elm tree planted in 1858 to replace the Davis Elm. It is framed by the same sycamore used to shift the Davis Elm’s fall, in 1856. Local history holds that it grew from a cutting of the great tree. Now thirty years older than the Davis Elm was in 1856, and famous in its own right as one of the town’s most beautiful trees, it amply fills the place of the tree whose end Thoreau mourned.

(p.143) A Link to the Past is Broken

I’ve attended the felling and, so to speak, the funeral of this old citizen of the town, I who commonly do not attend funerals, as it became me to do. I was the chief if not the only mourner there. I have taken the measure of his grandeur; have spoken a few words of eulogy at his grave. … But there were only the choppers and the passers-by to hear me. Further the town was not represented; the fathers of the town, the selectmen, the clergy were not there. But I have not known a fitter occasion for a sermon of late. … Its history extends back over more than half the whole history of the town. Since its kindred could not conveniently attend, I attended. Methinks its fall marks an epoch in the history of the town. It has passed away together with the clergy of the old school and the stage-coach which used to rattle beneath it. Its virtue was that it steadily grew and expanded from year to year to the very last. How much of old Concord falls with it! The town clerk will not chronicle its fall. I will, for it is of greater moment to the town than that of many a human inhabitant would be. Instead of erecting a monument to it, we take all possible pains to obliterate its stump, the only monument of a tree which is commonly allowed to stand. Another link that bound us to the past is broken. A few such elms would alone constitute a township. They might claim to send a representative to the General Court to look after their interests, if a fit one could be found, a native American one in a true and worthy sense, with catholic principles. Our town has lost some of its venerableness. No longer will our eyes rest on its massive gray trunk, like a vast Corinthian column by the wayside; no longer shall we walk in the shade of its lofty, spreading dome. It is as if you had laid the axe at the feet of some venerable Buckeley or Ripley. You have laid the axe, you have made fast your tackle, to one of the kingposts of the town. I feel the whole building wracked by it. Is it not sacrilege to cut down the tree which has so long looked over Concord beneficently?

Journal, JANUARY 22, 1856 (p.144)

Death of a Concord Kingpost

Another view of the elm said to have grown, in the same spot, from a cutting of the Davis Elm

(p.145) Concord’s Principled Elms

I have seen many a collection of stately elms which better deserved to be represented at the General Court than the manikins beneath, than the barroom and victualling cellar and groceries they overshadowed. When I see their magnificent domes, miles away in the horizon, over intervening valleys and forests, they suggest a village, a community, there. I find that into my idea of the village has entered more of the elm than of the human being. They are worth many a political borough. They constitute a borough. The poor human representative of his party sent out from beneath their shade will not suggest a tithe of the dignity, the true nobleness and comprehensiveness of view, the sturdiness and independence, and the serene beneficence that they do. They look from township to township. A fragment of their bark is worth the backs of all the politicians in the union. They are free-soilers in their own broad sense. They send their roots north and south and east and west into many a conservative’s Kansas and Carolina, who does

Death of a Concord Kingpost

Herbert Wendell Gleason

(p.146) not suspect such underground railroads, they improve the subsoil he has never disturbed, and many times their length, if the support of their principles requires it. They battle with the tempests of a century. See what scars they bear, what limbs they lost before we were born! Yet they never adjourn; they steadily vote for their principles, and send their roots further and wider from the same center. They die at their posts, and they leave a tough butt for the choppers to exercise themselves about, and a stump which serves for their monument. They attend no caucus, they make no compromise, they use no policy. Their one principle is growth. Their radicalism is not cutting away of roots, but an infinite multiplication and extension of them under all surrounding institutions. Their conservative heartwood, in which sap no longer flows, does not impoverish their growth, but is a firm column to support it; and when their expanding trunks no longer require it, it utterly decays. Their conservatism is a dead but solid heartwood, which is the pivot and firm column of support to all this growth, appropriating nothing to itself, but forever by its support assisting to extend the area of their radicalism. Half a century after they are dead at the core, they are preserved by radical reforms. They do not, like men, from radicals turn conservative. Their conservative part dies out first; their radical and growing part survives. They acquire new States and Territories, while the old dominions decay, and become the habitation of bears and owls and coons.

Journal, JANUARY 24, 1856

Miscounting the Elm’s Years

Men have been talking now for a week at the post office about the age of the great elm, as a matter interesting but impossible to be determined. The very choppers and travellers have stood upon its prostrate trunk and speculated upon its age, as if it were a profound mystery. I stooped and read its years to them (127, at nine and a half feet), but they heard me as the wind that once sighed through its branches. They still surmised that it might be 200 years old, but they never stooped to read the inscription. Truly they love darkness (p.147) rather than light. One said it was probably 150, for he had heard somebody say that for 50 years the elm grew, for 50 it stood still, and for 50 it was dying. (Wonder what portion of his career he stood still!) Truly all men are not men of science. They dwell within an integument of prejudice thicker than the bark of the cork tree, but it is valuable chiefly to stop bottles with. Tied to their buoyant prejudices, they keep themselves afloat when honest swimmers sink.

Journal, JANUARY 26, 1856

Death of a Concord Kingpost

Thoreau found the Davis Elm was 132 years old. He counted 127 rings but allowed five years for it to reach the height at which he started. Its annual rings began in two centers in the trunk about fourteen inches apart, corresponding to the elm’s two initial main leaders, but these rings later merged. On January 26, 1856, Thoreau drew the rings in his journal. Any resemblance to a human face is purely coincidental.