Old oak tree witnessed a lot of Yale history

I always walk up Hillhouse Avenue to get to my classes on Science Hill. The route takes me a block or two out of my way, but I have always considered the beautiful trees and parklike atmosphere worth the extra time.

After lunch one day, I was shocked to notice that one of the grandest trees on Hillhouse Avenue had been cut down. This tree’s trunk had a diameter of at least 5 feet, and I suspected that it had been there perhaps 200 years or more. The tree, an oak, could have lived another 100 years or more.

If the oak was more than 200 years old, then it witnessed some of Yale’s most important moments unfold.

The tree may just have been old enough to influence a young James Hillhouse, who came to New Haven when he was 7 years old and for whom the street was named. Hillhouse was Yale’s treasurer of 50 years, a businessman, but he also cared and spoke out about the major social issues of his day.

The tree may have shaded him and the other young men he befriended, including Roger Sherman and David Wooster and others, all eager to win independence from England. The tree would not have been far when James graduated side by side with Nathan Hale in the Yale class of 1773. Not long after, James, with about 100 Minutemen, resisted the landing of a 2,700-man British militia.

Hillhouse’s patriotism and belief in human rights did not stop with the American Revolution. Later, he was an outspoken anti-slavery advocate.

Hillhouse most definitely gave the tree some company in 1792, after he began planting elm trees that would one day characterize the entire city. Nathaniel Parker Willis said: “It has the appearance of a town roofed with trees. … It is commonly said, that, but for the spires, a bird flying over would scarce be aware of its existence. … The whole scene, though in the midst of the city, breathes of nature.” That great oak survived after those same elms began to die off from Dutch elm disease in 1928.

Earlier photographs of Luce Hall, showing students resting in the tree’s massive shade, can still be found on the Internet. Undoubtedly, a few Yale students and alum miss the tree.

Curious about the tree, I called Walter Debboli, manager for Yale’s grounds maintenance. He is a licensed arborist who oversaw the cutting of this tree and all others on the Yale campus. He explained that he considers the reasons behind for the cutting of each tree and must see that there is a disease or a safety issue. “I am not one to cut down trees,” he said.

Mr. Debboli cited disease as the reason this tree was cut. “Sometimes we walk through life or places like Hillhouse Avenue and don’t even notice what’s around us.”

However, he did note that construction of Luce Hall also contributed to the tree’s decline.

They not only add beauty to our everyday world, but also value for any property. Yet as William Blake once said, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.”

Mr. Debboli should be cheered for not allowing the indiscriminate cutting of trees on the Yale campus. And planners should reiterate the value of trees on this campus and elsewhere. Trees should be a priority in any major construction project.

Trees allow all students and passersby to experience a connection to Yale’s incredible history of more than 300 years.

Nicholas Olsen is a sophomore in Berkeley College.

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