I’ve been thinking a lot about memorialization lately: the process and purpose, as well as its vehicles. Like most historians, I’ve always found public/collective memory fascinating (mostly in terms of what is remembered and what is not) but I think the combination of the pulling down of Confederate statues and our upcoming symposium on the Salem Witch Trials as well as the imminent dedication of the new Proctor’s Ledge memorial site to its victims has shifted my interest into overdrive at this moment. Given my penchant for the built landscape, it should be no surprise that my favorite (this word seems odd in this context) memorials are artistic and architectural: images of the Korean War Memorial in Washington and the “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” ceramic poppies installation at the The Tower of London in 2014 are forever etched in my mind. But last year, there was an even more moving memorial in Britain which piqued my interest in “living” memorials: the “we’re here because we’re here” commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 2016, during which thousands of volunteers played the part of “ghost soldiers” in remembrance of the 19,240 men killed on just that first day of the battle.
‘we are here because we are here’, conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, photo by Topher McGrilli.
The Great War inspired (again, the word seems wrong) all sorts of memorialization on this side of the Atlantic, primarily in its immediate aftermath and into the 1920s. I don’t see Americans yearning for a poignant remembrance of the doughboys now, but maybe next year? In any case, one of the most national initiatives of remembrance following World War I was the planting of trees, another form of “living” memorial. Across the United States, from 1918 over the next decade or so, communities planted trees in memoriam of their lost loved ones. This was not a spontaneous movement, but rather one that was vigorously encouraged by the American Forestry Association, which asserted that the The Memorial Tree, “the tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray”, has become the tribute of the people of the nation to those who offered their lives to their country in the Great War for Civilization” and placed the article below in a parade of papers in January 1919.
Maybe there was some spontaneity in this campaign, or at the very least it catered to ingrained instincts; trees had long been symbols of personal mourning in American culture—think of Andrew Jackson’s White House magnolias, planted for his beloved wife Rachel, and all those weeping willow samplers. But I think World War I marks a moment when tree memorials became something more collective and more public. In Europe, trees had been utilized as memorials of collective achievement, not loss: the French were so inspired by Boston’s Liberty Tree (later stump) that they planted their own, “perpetuating the memory of Liberty” in 1789.
England’s Memorial of the Glorious Revolution, or of ” its Wonderfull deliverance, from French tirany and Popish oppression. Performed Through Allmighty Gods infinite goodness and Mercy By His Highness, William Henry of Nassau The High & Mighty Prince of Orange 1688′, British Museum; The French Liberty Tree, Lesueur Brothers, (18th century); French. Medium: gouache on paper. Date: 18th Century. Perpetuating the memory of Liberty; plantation d’un arbre de la liberte; Provenance: Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee Carnavalet, Paris, France / Giraudon.
And back across the Atlantic we go, a century and more later. President Warren G. Harding responded to the Memorial Tree campaign with a statement in May of 1919, in which he offered his approval and encouragement (“I can hardly think of a more fitting testimonial of our gratitude and affection than this”) and noted that these plantings were “one of the useful and beautiful ideas which our soldiers brought back from France. The splendid avenues of France have been among the great delights and attractions to travelers there, and a similar development would equally add to the beauty and attraction of our country”. And so it began: judging by the photographs at the Library of Congress, Mrs. Harding (Florence) spent a lot of time planting trees, as did both Coolidges after her.
Memorial Tree planting, 1919-1920: Boy Scouts, Mrs. Harding (2), President Coolidge, Mrs. Coolidge and Girl Scouts, Library of Congress.
As you can see very clearly in the Calvin Coolidge photograph, memorial trees were supposed to be registered with the American Forestry Association and have tags attached, but this didn’t happen everywhere and all the time: consequently there are memorial trees out there–“silent sentinels” in the words of the National Park Service–which are not recognized as memorials. Maybe someone remembers when they look at one of these tag-less trees, but a family memory does not a monument make!
American Forestry Association tree badge, Library of Congress.
I don’t know if any World War I memorial trees were planted here in Salem, but both memorials to the victims of 1692, the tercentenary memorial downtown and the soon-to-be-dedicated (I think July 19?) Proctor’s Ledge Memorial feature trees as integral features of their design and symbolism: black locust trees (on which the accused witches were purportedly hanged) for the tercentenary memorial and a single oak tree at Proctor’s Ledge. These trees are marked and will not be forgotten–nor will those they represent.