Turn of the Sentry

Turn of the Sentry

The sculpture garden behind the Yale University Art Gallery is an urban sanctuary, offering a nice, quiet place to sit during the day. It’s also a sanctuary for the three great elm trees that keep watch over the courtyard and provide all of its natural shade.

And while those elms have been a trio for as long as anyone can remember, that’s about to change, as the largest is now being carefully taken down, piece by piece, like a decommissioned installation, with the garden temporarily closed to accommodate the work. The weakness of the tree’s plume this past spring and subsequent testing this past summer led a host of university and consulting arborists to conclude that the tree had reached the end of its life cycle and might pose a danger if left alone.

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The care of the sculpture garden trees falls under the purview of Sean Dunn, the gallery’s Director of Facilities. He arrived at that position 10 years ago; the late, great tree and its surviving sisters preceded him there by about 90. He refers to photographic evidence: a black and white shot, dated 1924, of Weir Hall, the building now occupied by the courtyard’s neighbor Jonathan Edwards College. “So in the photo of this first leg are these three trees, and based upon the species—which grows quickly at that young age—they’re probably already somewhere around 5 years old.”

What Dunn means by “first leg” is Weir Hall’s place in a sequence of walls and buildings that had completely separated the trees from York and Chapel Streets by the first half of the last century. The original intent was a courtyard for Bonesmen seeking fresh, less secretive air behind Skull and Bones Hall. But it was effectively a nursery built to keep pace with the saplings’ growth. Dunn brings up another element, which was the first in a series of walls that isolated the trees below the ground as well as above. “It was a canal that basically allowed the transport of goods through the campus,” he says. “And there’s the last remnant of this canal, this walled area, that is right up against where this tree is.”

The tree he refers to is the one now departing, but the walls are still right up against its roots, last remnants touching last remnants. The roots must twist along every square foot of the stone wall’s interior, having probed by year-inches for a place to grow past it. Thwarted, the tree still managed to dwarf its sisters in girth, and in the impressive swells and grooves of its trunk; Dunn suggests that the wall might have actually helped. “When you look at one wall being in place back from when the tree first started to grow, and then another wall going in in the ’70s, how much more buttressing allowed this tree to significantly larger in its trunk than the other two trees?” “Like a giant flower pot?” I say, and Dunn verbally shrugs, knowing the experts are around to provide a definitive answer.

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One of the experts, Joseph J. Signore, is the first person Dunn called almost 10 years ago. In an earlier conversation, Signore, Supervisor of Landscaping at Yale, is careful to refute my theory that the enclosure of the trees protected them from Dutch elm disease—the same fungal outbreak that decimated their neighbors, all fatally joined at the root on the New Haven Green, in the 1930s. “I must clarify the trees are not American Elms,” he says of the garden’s graceful sentinels. “They are in fact Slippery Elms, a.k.a. Red Elms. Slippery Elm trees are commonly mistaken for American Elms as the distinction is not easy.” There are subtle differences in their branching habit and in the texture of their leaves, and the Slippery naming comes from an especially moist inner bark, which Native Americans and pioneers used to chew for its water content. They’re generally not susceptible, Signore says, to the fungus-bearing bark beetle.

But the bark beetle was only the last ill to plague the Red Elms’ American cousins outside the walls. A report presented to the mayor of New Haven in 1910 makes clear that the condition of those elms were a matter of concern even then. “The growing business district has crowded, abused and neglected the trees, until they are now in a pitiable condition at best… They are in some places standing so close together that, as they grow older, and become crowded, the foliage of the individual trees has insufficient exposure to the light… he covering of the roots with impervious pavements has changed, greatly for the worse, the conditions under which the trees attained their present growth.” Katherine Beechem, the GreenSkills Manager for the Urban Resources Initiative, who drew my attention to the report, also points out that carriage horses used to nibble on the bark. Compared to the trees on the Green, the sculpture garden elms grew up lucky, with only a set of routine, controlled interventions needed to reach old age.

An analogous scenario would be if those carriage horses had somehow been freed to graze inside the art gallery, and over time had managed to nibble the edges of all the arboreal landscapes on display—except The Elm Tree, a vibrant ink drawing by Sylvia Plimack Mangold, had survived intact for being locked in storage the whole time.

Of course, unlike a locked-away drawing, a living tree is always changing. As if to prove it, the trees in the garden have had to be relieved of their dead branches every spring since Dunn’s arrival. Because their isolation from the street places them out of reach of bucket trucks, the method of accessing the trees’ overstory is older than they are. “Because I rock climb and ice climb,” Dunn says, “I marvel at these guys who just from the ground up have these ascenders that slide up the rope… They’ve got a 30-pound chainsaw and they’ve got a backpack and they’ve got gear on… But then secondarily, they get up and they stand up on these thin branches… They’re holding a branch or a rope and with the other hand they’re swinging a chainsaw.”

Meanwhile, Signore determined that the trees also needed to be reached beneath the ground. Aging soil, trod upon for a hundred years, had compacted around the roots, preventing nutrients from reaching them. Compared to the human feats of balance above the ground, the subterranean solution is all machine calibration and engineering. As Signore explains it: “Root invigoration involves removing the grass, pumping bursts of compressed air deep enough to be in the root zone to break apart compacted soil and then injecting the roots with specially formulated fertilizer.” The roots had never been paved over in the fashion of those lamented in the 1910 report, but even grass can impede access to nutrients, so Dunn attained permission from the university to remove the grass from the garden altogether.

Other developments in the greater gallery space register as a novelty for humans but are actually accommodations for the trees. For example, the gallery’s lecture hall, located under the garden, is ovoid in shape, built that way to accommodate the surrounding roots. Its shape will soon be a kind of memorial to the absent elm.

The tree couldn’t last forever, of course, and though its surviving sisters are in good health, they also won’t. There are other great elms, even American Elms, elsewhere on Yale’s campus—Signore can name them all—but the presence of the garden trees among works of art invite special contemplations of beauty and impermanence. It’s fitting that, protected as it was for most of its life, and cherished as it was later in its life, the dying elm is being taken down by hand and carried away piecemeal through a narrow exit, like remains held aloft in a funeral procession.

Yale University Art Gallery
1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Wed & Fri 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm
(203) 432-0601

Written by David Zukowski. Images 1-3 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 4-7 photographed by David Zukowski.

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