From John Hennessy (for an earlier post on the Chatham catalpas, click here):
The Chatham catalpas are among the most famous trees in Virginia, likely mentioned by Walt Whitman in his remembrance of his time at Chatham in December 1862. He described the scene outside “the surgery”–the room we today use to show our A/V program:
At the foot of a tree, immediately in front, a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening–in the garden near, a row of graves.
By then, Chatham’s catalpas were probably 40 years old. Today, they are famous, old and gnarled. Their decrepitness conveys a sense of nobility. (If only it were so with people).
Last summer a regular walker at Chatham came in to tell us she thought one of the trees was leaning precariously. Sure enough, comparing it with some fairly recent photographs, we could see that the top of the northernmost tree (on the left in the photos) had indeed leaned to the right at least 18 inches over the last few years.
People slow down before they die. Trees–especially catalpas–lean.
A botanist confirmed that the root structure on the northernmost tree is largely gone, that the weight of one of its massive limbs was pulling the tree southward. If it fell, it would also take its twin down with it.
Under normal circumstances, we would have taken the tree down. But Chatham’s catalpas are not everyday trees. They are among five trees on the grounds that date to or before the war–“witness trees,” as the NPS lyrically calls them, as if they could talk. More than that, Whitman’s reference to at least one of them has made them famous. Along with the Brompton Oak, they may well be the most beloved trees in the Fredericksburg region.
The catalpas have for decades received special attention. John Lee Pratt’s gardeners braced the trees’ hollow interiors with metal supports. Today, they seem to have as much metal as wood on their interiors. But still they hung on. In the wake of last summer’s discovery, we faced a dilemma: bring its life to a quick and nondestructive end, or give the catalpa some help for its final months or years on earth. Because of the trees’ huge importance to so many, we opted to put the tree on literal life support.
Our maintenance crew fashioned a brace capable of holding it in place. They also removed the heavy limb that threatened to pull the tree down. The result: the tree is upright and stable again, though we have a closed-off area in the yard and a wooden brace that’s highly visible this time of year (though largely obscured by leaves in the summer).
None of this changes this stark, sad fact: the Chatham catalpas are dying. Come see them before they’re gone.