“Thou dead Elme”

In the late 18th century the elm – a tree historically associated with mortality* – acquired a new symbolic significance as the tree of revolution. As is often the way with such things this largely occurred via a historical accident (it happened that the great tree on Boston Common that was the focus for much political radicalism in the 1760s and 1770s was an elm), but in this instance there was another factor as well: many species of elm clone themselves via suckers and grow with great speed. Thus not only would propagation have been unusually easy, but it came with an added dose of symbolism for free: see how fast this Tree of Liberty grows, see how it ever works to replenish itself, so shall it also be for the revolutionary cause. The association between the elm and revolutionary politics was particularly strong in France, where arbres de la liberté were planted with great enthusiasm across the country and where these defiant acts of public gardening were frequently depicted in revolutionary propaganda.

Of course as everyone knows, the elm’s association with mortality returned with a tragic vengeance in the 1970s as a new and unusually virulent strain of Dutch Elm Disease – Ophiostoma novo-ulmi – appeared. This strain of DED was (is) particularly lethal to those elm species that clone themselves via suckers, and so large field elms of all kinds have largely vanished from the European landscape. What strikes me as curious is that this strain of DED emerged at more or less the same time at which many of the political traditions that venerated late 18th century radicalism began to fall into difficulties (to the point of outright decay and eventual collapse in the case of Marxism) from which, like the elms, they have not yet emerged. This is, of course, all entirely coincidental, but then such is often the way with symbolism. With this in mind, it may be useful to remember two things. The first is that the ancient relationship between mankind and the evolution of the elm continues to this day as attempts are made to create disease resistant cultivars. The second is that while DED kills mature trees with a merciless efficiency, it does not actually kill the roots and so the suckers continue to rise.

*A point made by the much missed Oliver Rackham, who used it as evidence for his (now widely accepted) claim that Dutch Elm Disease was not new:

“And for many centuries elm has been the tree of death – not merely as a hackneyed symbol like coffin-boards or funerary cypresses. Dead trees in literature are surprisingly often elms. The other diseases of elm rarely kill it; indeed from 1300 to 1850, when trees were more systemically used than they are now and there were fewer road-works and no agricultural chemicals, any dead tree would have been unusual. Why did St Martin and St Zenobius work the miracles of bringing dead elms back to life? Why was Falstaff addressed as “though dead Elme?” The young dead trees common in Italian paintings and drawings from 1450 to 1530 – what are they if not elms blasted with Elm Disease? Why was it possible in the eighteenth century to insure one’s elms against death? Elm was evidently well known to be the tree that specially shared man’s fragile tenure of life, and it is difficult to suggest any other explanation other than Elm Disease.”

Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside, (London, 1986), p. 243.

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