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The story of the Camperdown Elm tree and the poet who saved it

Boban Docevski

Let us for a moment forget all those stories about the oldest and most amazing trees in the world. Let’s take a look around us and see all the other trees that surround us in the parks, on the pavements, and in the in the countryside. Those great ancient trees all have the stories of forgotten times carved on their bark, but the trees that surround us are not less important than them. They are silent witnesses of our habits. The trees we pass by and see every day are part of the life of our home places. They’ve seen many first kisses, hugs, goodbyes, and smiles, or at least they’ve kept us in the shade on hot summer days. This is a story about one such tree: about how it came to life, and how it was saved from demise after years of neglect.

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A postcard with a view of the Lake in Prospect Park

The story is set in Brooklyn, New York, in the beautiful surroundings of Prospect Park. This place was the site of the Battle of Long Island during the American Revolution. In the 1860s, it was transformed in a community-managed natural resort in the midst of the urban chaos. The park flourished, and locals constantly enriched it with donations in the form of new flowers, trees, and wildlife. This exquisite tree that will become the main protagonist in our story also came as a gift by a man named A.G. Burgess, and it was planted in 1872.

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The original sport of Ulmus ‘Camperdownii’ tree, in Camperdown Park, Dundee (a picture from 1989)

It turned out that the tree was unique in many ways. Its name is The Camperdown Elm (Ulmus Camperdownii), and it is a rare example of a plant that can not reproduce by itself, from its seed. The Camperdown Elm came into existence in the 1830s when David Taylor (head forester of The Earl of Camperdown) found a mutated offspring of a Wych Elm on the grounds of Camperdown House, in Dundee, Scotland. He decided to replant it in the garden of Camperdown House, where it can still be seen today.

This original tree grows on its own roots. All the other Camperdown Elms that exist today are grafted on wych elm trunks. Because of their inability to reproduce, all of the Camperdown Elms in the world can be traced to the original tree in Scotland. Camperdownii is recognizable by its contorted branches which tend to “weep” down to the ground. In a way, Camperdown Elms depend on us to survive; they are helpless in this sense. The Camperdown Elm near the boathouse in Prospect Park became the most notable example; a perfect metaphor for our relationship with nature and how we depend on each other.

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The Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park, pictured here shortly after it was planted.

As decades passed, people started to lose interest in maintaining Prospect Park as they used to. The Camperdown Elm suffered the consequences. Every year, it became more and more withered, and it looked like it was truly “weeping.”

The Elm was forgotten, people passed by, and nobody seemed to care much about it. Things changed in the 1960s when it caught the eye of Marianne Moore, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. In 1965, Marianne was elected as president of New York’s Greensward Foundation – an advocacy group for public parks.

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Marianne Moore (1935)

She was an eccentric woman and a remarkable poet. She never got married, and it seems like love avoided her the whole life. In 1967, Marianne was 80, and she probably felt that her life resembled The Camperdown Elm. She grew fond of the tree and decided to help it in any way she could. That is how the Friends of Prospect Park Foundation was born. The aim of the group was to take care of all of the endangered trees in the park.

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A more recent photo of the Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park / Photo Credit

As her personal contribution, Marianne Moore wrote a beautiful poem about her beloved tree. A heartbreaking and ode that inspired and called people to protect and nurture the wounded tree:

The Camperdown Elm

I think, in connection with this weeping elm,
of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge
overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
conversing with Thomas Cole
in Asher Durand’s painting of them
under the filigree of an elm overhead.
No doubt they had seen other trees—lindens,
maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris
street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine
their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s
massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”
arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.
The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it
and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness
of its torso and there were six small cavities also.
Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;
still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is
our crowning curio.
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Prospect Park’s elm in winter. Showing its beautiful distinctive shape

Because of the attention that Marianne’s poetry turned to the Camperdown Elm, it still stands today, and its branches show gratitude to the people that saved it. The poem gave it life and character.