I've been reading The Overstory, by Richard Powers, a book about activists who try to save giant redwoods and Douglas firs, some more than a thousand years old, from logging companies determined to clear-cut entire forests. The book got me thinking about ancient trees, and the other day, as I was walking around Washington Square Park, I noticed that some of the trees looked like they'd been there a long time, maybe since the Civil War. "What's the oldest tree in Washington Square Park?" I asked Google. The answer surprised me.
In the northwest corner of the park is an enormous English elm, planted, according to some sources, in 1679, soon after the British took possession of New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York. The area was farmland surrounded by a marsh. Minetta Creek flowed down what would one day become Minetta Lane and Minetta Street.
The tree, 344 years old and 133 feet tall, is the oldest living thing in Manhattan. Its roots are thought to reach halfway across the park. Since nothing can live that long and be that big without having a legend attached to it, the English elm is also known as "The Hanging Elm," though there's no official record of anyone having been hanged from it. People were hanged from a gallows erected near the current location of the park's fountain and buried in the potter's field that's now the eastern two-thirds of the park. More than 20,000 bodies still lie underneath Washington Square, many of them victims of the yellow-fever epidemics that ravaged the city in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The elm has seen a lot.
I approached the northwest corner of the park looking for the tree. There was no mistaking it. With a trunk almost six feet in diameter, it dwarfs the surrounding trees. The elm seems to call out, "I'm the tree." I've walked by it a thousand times and wondered how I never noticed it before. I tried to take a picture of the entire tree but couldn't fit it all into the frame, not even close. So I settled for a photo of the bottom part of the trunk, which best communicates the enormity of an old English elm that will probably outlast me and you, too.
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