Romancing the Tree

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Elm Tree LawnIt’s easy to fall under the spell of Scripps’ elms. They signal the seasons: at the start of qfall semester, they’re lush and full; in early November, their leaves turn a burnished gold; in winter, they’re stark black sticks on the landscape reminding us of inner strength and patience. Now, in March, they begin to sprout vibrant new growth—for the last time. Right after Commencement, starting mid-May, the College will remove the ailing elms and replace them with sturdy, disease-resistant 25-foot saplings. (See story, beginning p. 23.)

As we say goodbye to the elms this spring, members of the Scripps community will be attaching notes, poems, drawings, writings, or any message they wish onto heavy paper that will temporarily sheath the trunks. During Reunion Weekend, May 2-4, alumnae will be encouraged to add their own tributes and walk among the trees to read what others have posted.

For my own offering, I searched the work of some of my favorite writers for references to the elm (what did we do before Google?) and found the following:

From Virginia Woolf, in To the Lighthouse: “…and Lily Briscoe and Mr. Banks, looking uneasily up into the sky, observed that the flock of starlings which Jasper had routed with his gun had settled on the tops of the elm trees.”

Also from Ms. Woolf, in The Waves: “…clasped under the showery darkness of elm trees in full summer foliage…”

Charles Dickens, in Bleak House: “…his heavy military trot is heard on the turf in the avenue as he rides on with imaginary clank and jingle of accoutrements under the old elm-trees.”

Mark Twain, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “A faint wind moaned through the trees, and Tom feared it might be the spirits of the dead, complaining at being disturbed. The boys talked little, and only under their breath, for the time and the place and the pervading solemnity and silence oppressed their spirits. They found the sharp new heap they were seeking, and ensconced themselves within the protection of three great elms that grew in a bunch within a few feet of the grave.”

None was quite right for my purpose.

Finally, I discovered what I needed: “There was not in the whole countryside another tree which could compare with him. He was matchless. Never a stranger passed the elm but stopped, and stared, and said or thought something about it. Even dull rustics looked, and had a momentary lapse from vacuity. The tree was compelling. He insisted upon recognition of his beauty and grace. Let one try to pass him unheeding and sunken in contemplation of his own little affairs, and lo! He would force himself out of the landscape, not only upon the eyes, but the very soul….” from The Six Trees by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930).

If you don’t already know Mary Freeman, I recommend her to you. She lived most of her life in Massachusetts, attended Mount Holyoke (then Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) for one year, in 1870, and first married at age 50. Best known for the novel Pembroke (1894), she wrote about the psychology of women’s lives at the turn of the century. She and Edith Wharton were the first women inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

I’ll let someone else post the Joyce Kilmer poem.


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