Sey Young: Does it matter to remember one tree?

Does it matter to remember?

"They paved paradise

"And put up a parking lot."

-- Joni Mitchell

Our story starts with a holly tree. Not just any holly tree, mind you. It would grow to be the largest holly tree in the state, stretching upwards of 90 feet into the sky. Forestry officials came down in the 1970s and had a little ceremony. "Largest Holly Tree," the bronze plaque read. The agency said the ceremony was to call attention to "historic trees" in the state and encouraged their preservation. Good luck with that! But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me get back to our story.

Throughout history, many cultures have attached symbolism and religious significance to the holly tree. Ancient Romans associated hollies with Saturn, their sun god, and used its branches as gifts during winter solstice. Druids and Celts linked hollies with the spirits and forces of nature. Christians transformed the Roman use of hollies by connecting the prickly leaves with Jesus' crown of thorns and holly berries with his blood. George Washington planted more than a dozen holly trees on his estate at Mount Vernon.

Her name was Catherine, and she grew up with that holly tree. Her parents owned a 40-acre farm on the outskirts of town with a grand farmhouse that featured the holly tree just to the right of the front door and a large pond just further down from the tree. Her father had moved to this small Southern town at the turn of the 20th century from Pennsylvania, married a local girl and prospered there. Catherine was born in that house in 1922. In the 1940s, her parents would host massive Fourth of July celebrations at the farm for all the surrounding townspeople. Chairs placed under the rapidly growing holly tree were the coveted spots to relax during the festivities.

Catherine never married, and by 1973, it was just her in the large house. She worked washing dishes at a nearby restaurant, coming home every night to her home, still guarded by the large holly tree. The celebrations and parties at the old home place were all gone. Soon the town's growth had pushed out to her land. City officials saw progress and new taxes where once their grandparents had gathered to enjoy fellowship. Calls were made. Officials dropped by. The words "eminent domain" may have come up, although memory can blur. She put the 40 acres up for sale, hoping to provide a legacy for her relatives. A real estate developer told Catherine he would handle everything. Some town folks say she became a millionaire. Some say only one of them did.

Soon what the town dreamed of unfolded. Fast food stores opened out front, and shops lined most of the rest of the 40 acres. No one wanted the house, so the developer had it bulldozed and the pond filled in. The holly tree came down last. Its title of largest in the state posthumously passed on to another, more fortunate tree. Today, the part of the 40 acres where the house and tree once stood is a graded lot, still for sale. Catherine died in 2014 at the age of 92.

Our story concludes with a phone call to the local historical society. I was asking about the holly tree, the house and Catherine. "Never heard of her or the tree," the youthful representative told me. I gave her a quick synopsis. "I wonder what happened to the plaque?" she asked. I wondered why she cared. Did no one in this town give value to what they had lost? What happens when a tree falls, and no one remembers?

NAN Our Town on 10/17/2019

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