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Old Growth

Dartmouth's elms endure as defining features of the campus
Elm trees
Two large elm trees frame Silsby Hall on North Main Street. The College has continued to plant elms, thanks to an aggressive approach to managing Dutch elm disease. (Photo by Sarah Memmi)

Ask anyone who loves Dartmouth where that all began, and chances are good that the reply will be "at first sight." The view of the Green and its trees, Baker Library, and Dartmouth Hall, says, "This must be the place."

The College's claim on the landscape began with the felling of the great white pines that grew on the plain above the Connecticut River; planting came later. By the middle of the 19th century, villages and towns throughout New England—and eventually across the nation—were shading their streets with the American elm, Ulmus americana. A circa 1840 watercolor image of the College depicts graceful young elms edging the Green. "If you look at pictures of old Hanover," says John Gratiot, associate vice president for Facilities Operations and Management, "Main Street and College Street were completely lined with elms, like a green tunnel."

That visual harmony came with a terrible price. When Dutch elm disease arrived from Europe in the 1930s, trees planted in close proximity to one another became unwitting conspirators in each others' decline. Although the disease is primarily transmitted by a bark-chewing beetle, elms will graft their roots onto those of their neighbors, potentially spreading the contagion underground.

By the middle of the 20th century, American towns had lost millions of elms. When Dartmouth's trees began to show signs of infection in the 1950s, Gratiot notes, the College adopted a very aggressive program to help the elms survive. Grounds Department Supervisor Bob Thebodo recalls that for a while in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the disease temporarily outstripped Dartmouth's ability to fight it. No longer, he suggests. As disease-resistant varieties were discovered and brought into the trade, they were planted at Dartmouth, a practice that continues to this day.

Alongside the younger trees, older giants persevere. Campus Arborist David DiBenedetto marvels at the elm that stands at the southwest corner of the Green, where Wheelock crosses Main Street; its survival nearly miraculous, he says, considering that it's almost completely surrounded by pavement. The elm between the Hopkins Center and Wilson Hall, thanks to construction decades ago, bears an extra two and a half feet of soil above its root flare, the place on a tree's trunk where it ought to meet the earth. In front of Wilson Hall, an elm, 140 years old, DiBenedetto estimates, owns it own parking spot on Wheelock Street. And the Parkhurst Elm endures.

During the growing season, DiBenedetto surveys the elms twice weekly, looking for yellowing and wilting leaves, the first signs that Dutch elm disease has caused a section of the tree's circulatory system to fail. College arborists respond by pruning as far back as needed to remove infected wood. That tree then joins the list of those receiving therapeutic treatments of fungicide. The decision to remove a tree is never taken lightly. Equally serious is the choice to actively protect trees from nearby construction. DiBenedetto cites the elm adjacent to newly finished Fahey Residence Hall. Vigorously cared for and guarded during construction, the tree now makes the space, serving as a bridge between new building and old.

Watercolor
This circa 1840 watercolor depicts young elms edging the Green. The painting is in the collections of the Hood Museum of Art and is attributed to Ann Frances Ray (Mrs. Gilbert Pillsbury, Class of 1841). (Photo courtesy Hood Museum of  Art)

Dartmouth's tree nursery, where several dozen young elms are added about every other year, says Gratiot, is a visible sign of the College's commitment to the tree, as is Dartmouth's master plan, which designates the elm as the tree for Baker Lawn. There will always be elms on the Green, as well. The Town of Hanover is planting elms, too; when they reach a certain stature, the elms that grow in the town's right-of-way within the College's grounds matriculate, as it were, into Dartmouth's care.

On the north side of Baker-Berry Library, as a new landscape is being developed where Bradley/Gerry once stood, elms will mix with hackberry and red oak. Seven years ago, the Class of 1950 transferred the stewardship of the College's Memorial Tree Program to the Class of 2000, which continues to select, dedicate, and fund new trees for the grounds. Dartmouth remains a campus distinguished by its trees. The College's old elms, and the younger ones that will in time grow to their stature, stand together as witnesses to twin truths: Dartmouth is always changing, Dartmouth is still the same.

By KELLY SEAMAN

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Last Updated: 5/30/08