BROOKLINE, Mass. Tuesday is your last full day to bid goodbye to the historic Olmsted Elm, which is scheduled to be cut down Wednesday after a 200-year life and a long battle with Dutch Elm disease.
The Olmsted Elm is not just any tree. It stands beside what was once the office of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture and the man behind Central Park in New York City and Boston’s own Emerald Necklace. When Olmsted bought the property in 1883, he chose to clear away the other trees that surrounded the elm — to leave it standing alone on the south lawn.
Now, the site is a national park and the once-magnificent elm is visibly thinned out and unhealthy. Supervisory park ranger Alan Banks and others at the National Park Service worry it could fall and damage the building. So Banks, who has been a ranger at the site for 20 years, is preparing to say goodbye.
“I really have mixed emotions,” said Banks, standing near the elm, which is currently roped off. “I’m very sad obviously, because I haven’t known many people for 20 years, let alone this tree. But I also know that even Olmsted knew that sometimes, as he put it, you had to ‘bless the axe’ for taking down trees that had gone past their time.”
Banks said the Park Service’s invitation to the public, to say goodbye to the Olmsted Elm, is not unusual for a tree of this significance — trees that are often called “witness trees” because of the history they’ve observed. While the elm wasn’t part of anything on the level of the witness trees at, say, the battle of Gettysburg, Banks said, it was with the Olmsted family for many years.
Olmsted never wrote specifically about the tree in his backyard. But he was “a great lover of elms,” said Banks, and often used them in his designs — to break up the rolling green space in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and, perhaps most famously, in a more formal manner to line the mall in Central Park.
It was Olmsted’s design in those parks that inspires Gerry Wright, a Jamaica Plain activist and naturalist who often channels him — complete with costume — and who joined Banks at the tree to say his goodbyes.
“There was this spiritual meaning to trees and to open spaces,” Wright said of the landscape architect’s work, “and Olmsted said that that’s the most important gratification of a park — that when anyone walks in at any time, there’s a sense of enhanced freedom. And for me, this elm is a symbol of all that.”
The Olmsted Elm is scheduled to be cut down on March 30. The National Park Service has invited the public to come say goodbye to the tree until that time. There are plans to plant a genetic clone of the elm within the next couple of years on the same site.