This Old Tree: Heritage trees and the human stories behind them.

Hosted by Doug Still

Old trees are awe inspiring links to the past that fire our historical imagination. Ever wonder what their stories are? Seasoned arborist and amateur historian Doug Still interviews local experts, historians, and regular folks to celebrate the myths and uncover the real tales. If you’re a tree lover, join in to look “beyond the plaque” for the meaning behind heritage trees. Listen at This Old Tree or subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts.

Episodes thus far:

Ep 1: The Betsey Williams Sycamore is the most famous tree in Rhode Island. Its huge girth and spreading branches have been photographed, climbed on, and loved by generations of visitors to historic Roger Williams Park in Providence. But its history touches on the legacy of Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s founder; introduces overlooked characters, some noble and some “shady,” including a forgotten tree; and features a Williams family crisis (and divorce trial) that threatened the tree and future park.

Ep 2: The Edison Banyan Tree

Why did Thomas Edison plant a banyan tree sapling at his winter residence in 1926? You guessed it, there was an experiment involved. Native to India, it is now a massive, beloved tree at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida. While this isn’t an “escape from the lab” story, it is sort of a “took over the lab” story! Debbie Hughes, the Horticultural Director, explains what happened. Also, we dig into the mythology of fig trees – specifically “strangler” figs – and their critical ecological and cultural importance with rainforest ecologist and author Mike Shanahan.

Ep: 3 Chronicling a Tree: Thoreau’s Concord Elm 

Concord, Massachusetts, 1856. Four men cut down a huge, seemingly healthy American elm tree using block and tackle, and ropes drawn by a horse. The graceful tree towered above a house whose owners heard creaking during a storm – they felt unsafe and had it removed. The event would have been long forgotten, except one of America’s greatest writers and earliest environmentalists also lived in Concord – Henry David Thoreau.

Supremely ticked-off, the removal of the stately elm inspired a flurry of journal writing by Thoreau that defined elms as symbols of virtue that looked to Concord’s past and the country’s future. Guest Thomas Campanella, Professor at Cornell University and author of Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm, shares his work. It turns out, elm trees  helped define our young nation’s sense of itself.

Ep. 4: The First 9/11 Survivor Trees 

The Survivor Tree is a well known tree planted at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City that was rescued from the rubble at the World Trade Center site after the terrorist attacks. It has become a stirring symbol of resilience and survival visited by millions of people.

But few people remember there were six other trees rescued from the site and transplanted in early October of 2001. Host Doug Still was part of the City Parks Department team that found them along with his former boss Bram Gunther. Doug and Bram recount the day they visited Ground Zero, describe how these remarkable trees were saved, and discover what’s become of them.

Ep 5: The Mies van der Rohe Honeylocust of the Alfred Caldwell Grove

A big, old, thorny honeylocust tree on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago has a place within the history of modernist architecture and landscape design. How so? Professor and landscape architect Ron Henderson talks about the tree’s relationship to Mies van der Rohe and his colleague Alfred Caldwell, and how the honeylocust became the feathery urban forest powerhouse it is today.

Ep 6: Luna Endures: A Redwood’s Survival Tale

Luna is a 200 ft tall redwood tree that towers on a ridge deep within a privately owned forest in northern California. You may remember Julia Butterfly Hill’s remarkable 2-year “tree sit” in the 1990’s that helped save the tree and shed light on the indiscriminate clearcutting of redwood forests. But after an agreement was reached to save the redwood and the national news media left, another crisis arose that threatened Luna’s existence, introduced new heroes, and ushered in a new era of collaboration.