Suzanne Stryk views her assemblages as more than just art. In the preface to her book The Middle of Somewhere: An Artist Explores the Nature of Virginia, she refers to them as “documents” or “…responses to a particular place. I document other lives in other places as I’ve experienced them…”1 Those lives might be present ones or ones lived in the past, since the natural elements Stryk uses in her pieces would be familiar to Virginians both past and present. When discussing her piece Bridge, Styrk remarks that the birds she saw flying around The Natural Bridge were probably genetically related to those seen by “Native Americans, early settlers, and Jefferson himself.”2 The literal Common Ground whose history we try to “dig into” every month during our book group. The Library of Virginia also endeavors to document the lives of the past, and sometimes that includes natural artifacts and artwork instead of paper documents, which is how we came to be in possession of a cross-section of a tree trunk.
Because of their longevity, trees have often been seen as a connection to past generations. They are long-lasting but unlike buildings and monuments, they are alive – sometimes they are even called “living monuments.” Some trees that have flourished for long periods of time and have a connection to famous events are often called “Witness Trees.” The National Park Service even has a program to preserve some such trees around the National Mall, called (you guessed it) the Witness Tree Protection Program. Age is generally just one aspect of preservation; significance is another. In the late 19th/early 20th century, there were a lot of old trees deemed significant due to oral traditions that connected them to famous figures, as was the case with our tree slab, which was once part of the “Washington Elm.”
Daily Press (Newport News), February 21, 1937
There were, arguably, several Washington Elms. The moniker was given to elm trees Washington supposedly planted, sat under, tied his horse to, or marched his army under, to say nothing of cedars, oaks, or pine trees to which he might have done the same. The most famous Washington Elm, however, was located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Local lore said that Washington accepted his commission to lead the Continental Army in 1775 under the stately elm which stood in Cambridge Commons.
One issue with a living monument is that it gives the impression of being regenerative. Everyone wanted their own small connection to the founding father. Officially and unofficially, while the tree was still flourishing, cuttings were taken from the elm and distributed to other organizations and local governments. A Boston pastor urged the propagation of Washington Elm descendants as a way to “perpetuate throughout the country the Washington elm and the sentiment of democracy and liberty that underlies it.”3 “Children” and “grandchildren” of the Washington Elm were planted around the country, including in Capitol Square in Richmond, Robert E. Lee’s Stratford Hall, and Stratford College. Pieces of the original elm were even traced to England at the ancestral home of Washington’s family.4
Despite these attempts to “democratize” the shrine, a fence and at times a guard had to be placed by the tree to keep the public from stripping it of all its bark and branches. Not all were not so lucky: Stryk recounts how the apple orchard where Grant and Lee were once seen conversing in Appomattox was stripped “twig by twig, branch by branch” for souvenirs until the orchard was destroyed.5 At least one enterprising young boy sold twigs from the tree to tourists. The Boston Globe reported that “some of the wood sold savored of pine, birch and hemlock. Whatever the wood, thousands of persons have pieces of what they believe to be the old elm.”6 In fact, years later, a tree planted in North Carolina with cuttings that were supposed to be from the Washington Elm, turned out instead to be a cherry tree.7
In 1923 the Cambridge Washington Elm was also destroyed, not by eager tourists, but by an infestation of the “elm-bark beetle” which slowly ate it from the inside. It was replaced by a “son” and then a “grandson” grown from cuttings. When the living monument fell, a more permanent stone monument was erected – a monument to a monument – and people scrambled to collect the remaining sticks and branches, fashioning them into cups, a miniature cannon, a book, a thimble, and picture frames.
While the provenance of those handiworks might be suspect, each state governor was officially given a slab from the trunk of the tree, which is what now resides at the Library of Virginia along with two gavels which were given to each state legislature. Virginia’s two gavels were sent to the Virginia Assembly in 1925 but were quickly placed in the Library of Virginia (then called the Virginia State Library) because they were “not made to stand hard usage” and would have been easily damaged if they were actively used to pound on a desk.8
We know that the cross-section was on public display in one of the Library’s reading rooms alongside Peter Francisco’s sword and other “relics” thanks to a 1924 Richmond News Leader article which feared it might be made into a “Mah Jongg set” due to the shaking of the building caused by a new power station nearby.9 This, of course, did not happen and today the trunk piece and the gavels are still preserved in our collections. Just like Stryk’s artwork, they now have many layers of history to present to us not just about nature itself but how we interact with it.
In fact, the history of the Washington Elm as a living monument has not died out either. In 1932, President Herbert Hoover planted the “George Washington Elm” on the White House grounds as part of the bicentennial celebration of Washington’s birth. The effort was seen as a way for every citizen to join the celebration. The president of the American Tree Association called for a “second Continental Army, an army of tree planters, made up of young and old mobilized in every state and hamlet.”10 Many of these trees still stand today and many of them are elms, some were even descendants of the Cambridge Washington Elm, such as the one planted near the Yorktown Victory Monument. A new generation of Washington Elms was created and a new generation of Witness Trees, recalling to mind another Suzanne Stryk piece entitled, How the Past Returns.
Join us virtually on July 19th at 6pm to chat with artist and author Suzanne Stryk about her book The Middle of Somewhere: An Artist Explores the Nature of Virginia. Registration is free but required.
Adams, Stephen. The Best and Worst Country in the World: Perspectives on the Early Virginia Landscape. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.
Ausband, Stephen C. Byrd’s Line: A Natural History. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.
Badger, Curtis J. Salt Tide: Cycles and Currents of Life Along the Coast. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 1999.
Branch, Michael P., and Daniel J. Philippon. The Height of Our Mountains: Nature Writing from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Clabough, Casey. The Warrior’s Path: Reflections Along an Ancient Route. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974.
Garland, Mark S. Watching Nature: A Mid-Atlantic Natural History. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia: With Related Documents. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Thomson, Keith Stewart. A Passion for Nature: Thomas Jefferson and Natural History. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2008.
Landmarks of American Nature Writing (University of Virginia Library)
Natural Heritage (Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation)
Virginia Big Trees (Virginia Tech)
Virginia Bird and Wildlife Trail (Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources)
VTree App (Virginia Tech)
Wildlife Viewing (Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources)
 Suzanne Stryk, “The Middle of Somewhere: An Artist Explores the Nature of Virginia,” in The Middle of Somewhere: An Artist Explores the Nature of Virginia (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2022), 7.
 Ibid, 79.
“A Washington Elm For All,” Boston Post, February 21, 1921, p. 12, https://www.newspapers.com/image/71609557.
 “Piece of Washington Elm For His Ancestral Home.” The Boston Globe, June 5, 1924. https://www.newspapers.com/image/430235569.
 Suzanne Stryk, “The Middle of Somewhere: An Artist Explores the Nature of Virginia,” in The Middle of Somewhere: An Artist Explores the Nature of Virginia (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2022), 175.
 “’Son’ of Washington Elm Now On Cambridge Common.” The Boston Globe, February 1932, 19AD. https://www.newspapers.com/image/431176760.
 United Press. “’Washington Elm’ Is Cherry Tree!” The Richmond News Leader, May 18, 1942. https://www.newspapers.com/image/760240394/.
 “Washington Elm Gavels Received.” Richmond News Leader, April 13, 1925. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=RNL19250413&e.
 “State Library Building Suffers Palsy Attack; May Take Action.” News Leader. April 30, 1924. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=NEL19240430&e.
 “Citizens Asked to Plant Trees Now.” Front Royal Record. February 3, 1932. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=FRR19320203.1.1&srpos=70&e.