I can think of many reasons to plant trees, but what inspires me most about trees is their power to occupy our minds after they’ve long departed, embedded in memories, stories, and traditions. The Liberty Tree on the Boston Common is a famous example, felled by the British in 1775 its former spot became a revolutionary rallying point. The Liberty Tree led to the planting of liberty trees across the soon to be united States, a tradition that has spread around the world, wherever people seek freedom. The Liberty Tree, a singular American elm (Ulmus americana), grew long before my time, but I have met a few of its contemporaries, such as the Stamp Act Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) at Old Nassau and the Mercer Oak (Quercus alba) on the Princeton Battlefield.
The Mercer Oak sheltered brigadier general Hugh Mercer, refusing to leave his troops, a deadly bayonet wound to his side, at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. I visited the tree several times during its last four years. The 300 hundred year old white oak had some pretty big gashes too, patched up with concrete and sheet metal. A windstorm took it down in March 2000. The Mercer Oak was the largest and oldest white oak I had yet encountered in the fall of 1996. It was not that I was new to the species; white oak wood warmed me as I wrote the essay that commenced my journey to Princeton. But I’d never seen such an oak, in a class of its own, a lone wolf, growing in an open field for centuries, the product of unlimited sun, water, and soil. Entering its canopy was like opening a storybook.
I was nineteen then, already a veteran tree hunter. On Sweet Hollow Farm many trees had shaped my life’s story up to that point. Many of the more prominent trees are gone, returned to the earth and sky. The Bear Tree (Pinus strobus), The Pumpkin Tree (Quercus rubra), and The Big Spruce (Picea abies) are especially memorable. The Bear Tree’s trunk split near the ground into several massive leaders, creating a hollow, filled with soft white pine needles—a place where I could sit for hours, looking out over the Back Field, wondering what lay next over the horizon. The Pumpkin Tree looked like a giant upside down jack-o-lantern, glowing orange in the late October sun, its branches sweeping low to the ground, functioning as natural hammocks and paths to the treetop. Pop planted The Big Spruce, a fast growing Norwegian tree. The pride of its planter eventually outgrew its situation. So we liberated it—and the house—soon after Pop left us. I planted a white oak in its place—Pop’s favorite tree—a bit farther from the house in the corner of the Front Field. It is only a foot high this year, ravaged by gypsy moths recently. But that is no matter. I can wait for it to grow because in the meantime I have the memory of Mercer’s Oak.