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 the land-side of the house. 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.
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 adult over child.