In its 400 years in Annapolis, Maryland's fabled Liberty Tree has survived the Revolutionary War, fire, decay and even a prank in the 1840s when schoolboys touched off 2 pounds of gunpowder in its hollow.
But Hurricane Floyd might have been its breaking point.
The mammoth storm that blew through the state capital last week has forced St. John's College officials to consider taking down the symbolic tree that graces their lawn. It is the sole survivor of the original 13, one in each colony, under which the Sons of Liberty gathered in the 1770s.
With a fresh 15-foot-long crack down the middle of the towering tulip poplar's trunk, and a large branch breaking away toward a nearby dormitory, the prognosis isn't good.
Three arborists who examined the damaged tree have recommended its removal, and a fourth -- at the behest of the state government -- will weigh in today before college officials decide its fate.
"We're searching for an expert who can provide some hope," said Jeff Bishop, the college's vice president. "It's not unlike an individual who's been diagnosed with a terminal disease, looking for opinions from other doctors who might provide alternative cures. It's terrible."
The tree suffered damage when Floyd's strong winds struck Annapolis on Thursday afternoon. Bishop said the college evacuated six rooms in the dorm closest to the tree, erected a fence around it and warned students not to venture beyond the boundary.
Paul Foster, a manager with Bartlett Tree Experts in Annapolis -- which has cared for the tree since 1959 -- said he was summoned first thing Friday to examine the damage. Foster, who has lovingly pruned and fertilized the Liberty Tree for five years, said tulip poplars are particularly brittle and get more so as they age.
"Hurricane Floyd really did a number on that tree," he said. "What a shame."
A symbol of liberty
The 96-foot tree has been a potent symbol of the fight for liberty since Maryland colonists gathered under its branches to denounce British oppression, sing revolutionary songs and hang unpopular officials in effigy.
Each colony had its own Liberty Tree, but the British hacked down most of them when they occupied major cities during the Revolutionary War. Maryland's survived because the Redcoats faced military opposition in Annapolis and bypassed the seaport for Philadelphia.
The few trees that survived the war succumbed over the years to age or disease. In June, scientists began cloning the St. John's tree so each state could again have a Liberty Tree -- or at least a genetic copy of Maryland's.
"I don't want to be premature," said Mike Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "But I'm just glad they took the cuttings from the tree earlier this year."
Morrill said that under orders from Glendening, the Department of General Services has commissioned an arborist to inspect the tree today to see whether it can be saved.
As word of the damage slowly spread yesterday, preservationists and state and city officials expressed shock and grief at the prospect of the tree's demise.
"There's got to be something we can do," said Dan Sams, director of preservation at the Historic Annapolis Foundation. "It's the oldest, most important thing around here."
A long, full life
Edward C. Papenfuse, the state's chief archivist, said he has discussed the tree with St. John's officials and hopes they will find a way to preserve it. But he noted that it has lived 100 years longer than the average tulip poplar.
"Every living thing has a life span, and this tree has outlived the life span of trees of its kind," Papenfuse said. "There's going to be an extraordinary sense of loss. But perhaps what we need to be doing is thinking of a way to perpetuate the memory of the tree in a proper, fitting way."
Several students strolling along the makeshift orange fence around the Liberty Tree yesterday afternoon offered suggestions.
Bob Dickson, 21, captain of the St. John's croquet team, said students have been considering uses for the wood if the tree is taken down.
Since college croquet matches under the shady tulip poplar are legendary, Dickson, a St. John's senior, felt it would be fitting to have a ceremonial mallet made from its remains.
Dickson and others who inched around the fence said they had never given the tree much thought before the hurricane.
"It's kind of hard to understand the significance of anything that's older than you," said Justin Kray, a 20-year-old junior. "But I guess it could symbolize the loss of liberty and stuff."
'Kind of sad'
Senior Sonya Schiff, 20, was ambivalent. "It looks pretty, and it's nice that it's on our campus," Schiff said. "If they took it down, that would be kind of sad. But I don't know how it would really affect my life."
As St. John's officials braced to make a tough decision, probably by today or tomorrow, others who have enjoyed the Liberty Tree were hoping for the best.
"If you were brought up in the Beavis and Butthead generation, you might think it's just another tree," said Thomas W. Roskelly, Annapolis' city spokesman. "But there are those of us who have lived in this area a long, long time who look at the Liberty Tree as a symbol for all the freedom that we enjoy in this nation.
"That grand, old tree has survived an awful lot," he added softly. "It would seem a shame to have yet another blow from the hurricane."