Just as their forefathers did centuries ago, Marylanders gathered yesterday morning near their Liberty Tree in Annapolis -- this time to not only wax lyrical about the pursuit of freedom, but also to bid farewell to their legendary, ailing arbor.
The 400-year-old tulip poplar on the front lawn of St. John's College was the nation's last surviving Liberty Tree of the original 13 -- one in each of the colonies -- under which colonists gathered in the 1770s to incite rebellion against the British. Yesterday, college officials began the heart-wrenching task of removing the 97-foot tree, after Hurricane Floyd's strong winds last month ripped a 15-foot crack in its trunk, rendering it dangerous to nearby buildings and foot traffic.
"We all feel such a deep sense of sadness over the duty we have to perform today," St. John's President Christopher Nelson said to the 300 people who assembled just after sunrise to pay tribute to the tree. "So we'll do our best to celebrate the great life of a venerable old friend, the symbol of America's most treasured prize -- the independence and liberty for all people."
The tree's last day was filled with pomp, pageantry and a minor incident. College students and faculty showed up before dawn to find the tree vandalized overnight, with "GO NAVY" spray-painted in dark blue, foot-high letters on its trunk. College officials went on with festivities as planned, making no mention of the prank.
Before workers revved up their chain saws just after 9 a.m., the college held a short ceremony featuring eulogies from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and Annapolis Mayor Dean L. Johnson, who called the Liberty Tree "the Cal Ripken of trees." Each speaker stressed the significance of liberty in the formation of America and the need to preserve it.
"What a great symbol of liberty this 400-year-old tree has been," Glendening said. "Under this tree, the seeds of revolution and freedom in this country and the world were planted. Its passing is very unfortunate."
The Maryland tree had been a powerful symbol of the fight for liberty since colonists met around it to denounce British oppression, sing revolutionary songs and hang effigies of unpopular officials. Francis Scott Key, who wrote "The Star Spangled Banner," graduated from St. John's and was known to have admired the tree. And patriot Thomas Paine is among several who have written poems on Liberty Trees.
In fact, the patriotic fervor that surrounded the Liberty Tree so angered the British that they hacked down most of the 13 trees when they occupied major cities during the Revolutionary War. The few that survived the war succumbed to age or disease over the years -- except for one.
Maryland's tree had weakened considerably over the years, enduring storms, fire and a prank in the last century in which schoolboys ignited 2 pounds of gunpowder in its hollow.
By the time Floyd struck, the tree had a hollow filled with concrete for reinforcement and wires and bolts holding it together at parts after a 1975 storm put a 6-foot-long crack in the upper trunk.
After Floyd, college officials brought in four arborists before deciding the tree could not be saved.
Those who gathered to mourn the tree's passing paid homage to the grand old tree that had provided shade for picnics, study sessions, St. John's graduations and the school's annual croquet match against its long-standing rival, the Naval Academy.
"I graduated under that tree, I've played croquet at all hours of the day, gotten drunk under that tree," said Erin Martell, 24, a Montgomery County correctional employee who teared up as workers started the saws. "It's so silly to think that way about a tree, I know, but we just thought it was always going to be there."
Others expressed anger with the vandalism.
"To deface it on its last day, it's just immature," said James Inzeo, 19, a St. John's junior. "The U.S. Naval Academy should apologize."
Cmdr. Mike Brady, Naval Academy spokesman, said officials were surprised to learn about the graffiti.
"We, too, are disappointed that anyone would deface it," Brady said. "If it should be determined that someone associated with the Naval Academy is responsible, we will take appropriate action. At this point, it's premature to presume that this was the action of a midshipman."
Barbara Goyette, St. John's spokeswoman, said the college was not investigating the incident but was disappointed with the prank.
Goyette said officials are focusing on the tree-removal -- which is to be completed today -- curing the wood and finding appropriate uses for it, adding that she has been getting 50 calls a day from people all over the country, wanting the tree to be made into anything from clocks to sculptures to books.
College officials also are waiting to see if a state effort at cloning the tree from genetic samples extracted in June is successful. They expect results next spring.
And in the meantime, though the Liberty Tree came down, its spirit of revolutionary fervor was ever-present as some St. John's students began plotting ways to avenge the defacing.
"We're thinking of writing protest poetry and distributing it on leaflets around the Naval Academy," said freshman Nathanel Eagle, 18, to cheers of his friends. "The [midshipmen] are probably far better at stealth than we are, so whatever we do to fight back, it's going to have to be literary."