A tiny witness grown grand


From John Hennessy:

If I might speak personally for a moment: one of the great joys of my job is looking out my office window every day and seeing the great sycamore that towers over both Chatham and me. Every spring I watch its leaves straggle into bloom, faithfully two weeks later than every other tree around, always waiting long enough to make me wonder if, finally, this year is it–the year it will not leaf out–but then it does.  I see it sway scarily in summer storms, watch its leaves turn and drop each fall, and behold the steady procession of its broken branches that get hung up in their fall…and then teeter, sometimes for month or two, before just the right wind blows them to the ground.

This computer and that sycamore are the two of constants of my worklife.

A couple years ago, our friend and pre-eminent Fredericksburg collector Jerry Brent discovered a postwar image of the east facade of Chatham–by far the earliest image we have of what was then the functional back yard of the house (it has since been turned into the main entrance). Taken right after the war, it shows a scraggly landscape struggling to recover from some serious wartime abuse–including 130 graves, most of them in the  yard on this side of the house.

Photo courtesy Jerry Brent

But look closely. In the distance, framed by the house, are several trees. There are four, and it’s likely that our sycamore is the third from the left. Borings suggest that it dates to the war, and the location seems about right in this picture. If this be our tree, then it was a tiny witness indeed in 1862, probably half the size shown in the photo.

We recently wrote about the barriers between people and history, and how gratified visitors often are when those barriers–be they real or imagined–drop a bit. Here’s a literal piece of living history without barriers–the great Chatham sycamore, which in its youth witnessed the passing of Lincoln and Burnside, Clara Barton and Walt Whitman, and for four years cast its shade every afternoon on the graves of Union soldiers (removed right after the war), and which since has grown to magnificence, towering over all around it, like man over youth.

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5 thoughts on “A tiny witness grown grand

  1. Great story.

    It reminds me of a small piece of family history. We have a picture of my grandparents holding my mom when she was maybe 1 year old, in front of what was then a large sycamore tree.

    My grandparents now live on that same farm, and despite the changes that time and some construction have made on the land, that same sycamore tree is still there, more than 50 years later. It is difficult to look at that tree and not think of that picture. It’s not the same as knowing it witnessed Lincoln, Burnside et al, but it’s funny that it too is a sycamore like in this story, and your entry certainly brought it to mind and made me smile.

    Sorry if this is a bit off topic, but I share your pleasure in looking at a sycamore tree and thinking of its past.

    • Richard. Thanks for sharing. Grand and ancient trees offer a constancy otherwise absent from our world, which I think is why we are so attracted to them. John

  2. John, you are such a lucky person to be able to work where you do and to be able to view the magnificent tree daily! Thanks to a wonderful (and CW Buff Extraordinary) friend (Dave R.) we drove by Chatham this past weekend after the Franklin Crossing tour (thanks again to you and Eric for the fabulous tour and opportunity to live a little history). I am anxious to go there again soon and really tour around!

  3. John,

    Magnificent trees like these are a joy. I lived for 6 years in a house in Maryland whose front yard had a 300 year old White Oak. I enjoyed having it in my yard, except in the fall, and people would drive down our street just to see the tree. I often wondered about all the events that transpired in the life of that tree.

    Thanks,
    Martin

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