In the town of Blue Hill on the coast of Maine, there is a field of small white flags, one flag placed for each soldier killed in the war in Iraq. Throughout the summer, I have walked past this piece of land located between the First Congregational Church and the public library and wondered who the land belongs to and who is responsible for keeping vigil, placing the flags, painting the rising numbers of dead in black on a white wooden sign: 1,873 American soldiers; 26,559 Iraqi civilians.
I discovered the land belongs to Rufus Wanning, an arborist, known throughout Hancock County as the tree specialist who helped Blue Hill save the American elms that stand in the community like elders. Every week, Rufus would inspect each elm in town. When he saw the slightest sign or symptom of Dutch elm disease (a fungus transmitted by the elm bark beetle that plugs the vascular system of the tree, preventing the flow of water and nutrients), he would take his long clippers to the branch with wilting leaves, and in his neighbors words, “nip it in the bud.”
The American elm, Ulmus americana, revered in the eastern United States for its majestic presence, can rise to almost 90 feet. They arch over city streets reminding one of ceilings found in gothic cathedral Since the 1930’s, however, when the pathogen infiltrated the elms from Europe, we have lost more than 100 million American elms in this country.
In 1975, a federal inventory was taken to determine how many elms were growing in Blue Hill. They found 700 trees that measured 4″ or larger in diameter. In 2002 -2003, Rufus Wanning conducted another inventory. This time they found only 100 elms, with only 60 to 70 trees still alive from the 700 trees registered thirty years before. Now, most trees die before maturity at around 40 feet.
A genetically modified elm tree named “The Liberty Elm” or ” America’s Freedom Tree” was developed in the 1960’s and has many scientists hopeful that it will be disease resistant.
But the Liberty Elm is no substitute for the American Elm. That which is original cannot be soulfully cloned. Rufus Wanning said as hopeful as the Liberty Elm may be for replacing the classical elm, it does not have the same stature. American Elms have greater elevation.
Last week, I had the privilege of meeting Wanning at a vigil on his land, the land he has given permission to the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center to use as a meditation and memorial to those who have died in the Iraq War. We gathered in support of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Spc. Casey Austin Sheehan, who has simply asked to have a conversation with our president. Her son died in Iraq on April 4, 2004.
Rufus Wanning stood to the side, quiet and anonymous to some, well known to others, a resident of the area since 1971.
Robert Shetterly, an artist from Brooksville, who is engaged in a project of painting portraits called, “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” had just finished Cindy Sheehan’s portrait which he brought to the gathering. He spoke about the challenge of painting her eyes. “… the knowledge that she could not be intimidated or diverted, that the spin doctors and hate-mongers could belittle and disparage her to no avail. The eyes had no fear. They had a clarity of purpose that was at once sad, defiant, and calm.”
Other members of the community stepped forward. Ann Ferrara spoke of three kinds of death: the one where breathing stops; the one where we are laid to rest; and the spiritual death that occurs when those we love are forgotten. She said, the first two cannot be stopped, the last one can. “We must not forget -”
My eyes turned to the field of white flags and the magnificent elms that shaded them. I saw Rufus Wanning with his head bowed and his large hands clasped behind his back. In his humble stance, I thought about how his impulse to save trees is the same impulse to offer his land as a place of peace. And how the third death, the spiritual death that accompanies the act of forgetting must be extended to the remembrance of beloved lands as well as loved ones.
For me, the white flags of the fallen became the white tufts of cotton grass blowing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My eyes blurred. Boundaries blurred. What are we being asked to sacrifice in the name of greed, in the name of lies? What are we allowing to be buried if we fail to act out of our love and our outrage? There is no separation or compartmentalization when it comes to the sacred nature of life. The war in Iraq and the war on our environment is fueled by the same oil relationships.
Any maintenance of peace and preservation of a just world, a world full of fragile beauty, will require a vigilance like the arborist of Blue Hill, Rufus Wanning and the fierce maternal voice of Cindy Sheehan. Peace will not become a forgotten casualty when members of our communities like Peter and Judy Robbins keep planting white flags as each soldier dies or as long as the artist Becky McCall respectfully kneels and paints the rising numbers of the dead in black on white.
“I see people stopping at the memorial, looking and thinking.” Rufus says. “I think it’s having a remarkable accumulative effect.”
In a sustained moment of silence, a late summer breeze was whispering through the canopies of American elms standing their ground in a small coastal town in Maine. I heard the voice of Edward Abbey, another American who told the truth, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”
Terry Tempest Williams is a writer who divides her time between Utah and Maine. She is the author of “Refuge” and most recently, “The Open Space of Democracy,” and is the 2005 recipient of the Wallace Stegner Award given by the Center for the American West.