I recently read an article from Smithsonian Magazine that described five American “witness trees” that were present during historically significant events. Trees that bore witness to civil war battles. Trees that were witness to great tragedies.
It seems that the National Park Service has started a Witness Tree Protection Program, to preserve such trees. Their focus has been in and around Washington DC, but other trees in the country have survived historical events as well. This article, from the American Battlefield Trust, describes many such witness trees.
I think it is important to preserve trees generally, but even more so when they can act as messengers from a present place to a distant time. I think that this preservation should be greatly expanded, to increase our connection to the earth. Trees that were used for lynching should be considered witness trees, too, so we don’t forget how truly evil people can be, and so that we never forget that these horrible things really happened and must never happen again.
But I also think of the many trees that have seen wonderful things. Are there trees that witnessed the Selma to Montgomery march? I’m sure there are. They witnessed the determination for justice as well as the horrible violence and ignorance that it was met with. Were any trees peeking through the windows as the Declaration of Independence was signed? They witnessed the start of an extremely flawed and exclusionary democratic experiment that still needs work, but is more precious for all that. I’m sure there’s many a tree that bore witness to the announcement of the emancipation of slavery as that news traveled slowly throughout the south. And what events have the nation’s mighty sequoia trees seen, and when have they seen them?
If trees could talk, I suspect they’d have many fascinating stories to tell. That is, if they would even bother interacting with such trivial short-lived creatures as ourselves. Trees talking to humans would be much like us telling our life story to a butterfly. A lot of effort for something that will be gone in the blink of an eye.
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