I live near Philadelphia, an area that fair bristles with historic landmark signs, but there's only one that I know that honors a tree. To be sure, it's a very old tree, an enormous European beech - Fagus sylvatica - whose gnarled serpentine branches spread and sprawl in every direction, and defied my attempts to fit it into a single photograph. The last time the tree was officially measured, in 2006, experts determined it to be more than 80 feet tall with a 90 foot spread and a trunk circumference of 190 inches, sufficient to earn designation as a Pennsylvania "Big Tree."
But since I'm a TNHG, it's the tree's past that fascinates me more than its size. According to the local historical society, the beech was planted around 1711, by a young Scottish-born farmer named Alexander Bane (1688-1747.) Not much is known of Alexander. He was a Friend, and he and his brother Mordecai both settled in what is now Chester County. In 1711, he purchased 300 acres of land that had been part of William Penn's original grant. Soon after, he planted this beech, perhaps as a reminder of the homeland he'd left behind, or perhaps to add a small touch of gentility to his new farm before he married a city-born bride from Philadelphia in 1713. Perhaps, too, the newly planted beech was included in his required "forest land"; aware of the majesty of colonial America (and aware, too, of how rapidly the once-great forests of England were disappearing), Penn stipulated that a portion of every settler's tract must remain uncleared and forested.
That's idle speculation, of course, and Friend Bane's reason for planting the beech is as lost as his farm. The farm was long ago broken up and "developed", the stone farmhouse torn down and the rolling fields around it replaced by suburban houses and an elementary school, with the four noisy lanes of Route 202 destroying any lingering hints of Quakerly peace.
Yet the tree remains. Now three hundred years old, it's an ancient but vital survivor, isolated and surrounded by a chain-link fence to protect it from nefarious teenagers and the tow-trucks headed for the auto repair shop across the street. Yet standing beneath its twisting branches, I think of how an elderly William Penn might have visited the Bane family's farm. He might well have sat on a nearby bench with Alexander, drinking cider poured by Jane Bane on a warm summer evening: the same William Penn who had refused to remove his hat before Charles II at Whitehall Palace, the same William Penn who received the generous grant of land in 1682 from James, Duke of York (who becomes the king of The Countess and the King), that became Pennsylvania. In other words, this tree is a contemporary of the characters of my most recent books – and suddenly 17th c. England doesn't seem that long ago at all.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.