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God's Beloved Yellowwoods

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Oct 05

Text: Isaiah 5:1-5 and Psalm 80

I take as my texts for today the opening line from our passage from Isaiah and also the Psalm that we just read.  “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.”  A love-song concerning God’s planting of a vineyard! The psalmist echoes the theme, extending the metaphor. “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted.” These passages, with all their botanical imagery, were appointed by the lectionary for this Sunday. I did not choose them. But boy do they find a resonance in this community today. Let alone the metaphors such images conjure for the people of Israel, there runs through them an abiding appreciation of our God of all creation!

About a week and a half ago, we learned that our beloved Yellowwood trees, those gorgeous specimens that have grown on our front lawn for 142 years, must come down. We’ve been watching them carefully for years, working with local arborists, and botanists from the Arnold Arboretum and Mt. Auburn Cemetery. We’ve strung cables and wires, treated them with tenderness and love, cultivated their seedlings and planted saplings that have grown in their shade. We have done what we can to preserve these majestic manifestations of God’s creation, and yet, as with all living things, there comes a time to bid farewell and to do so with an abiding gratefulness to God who is with us and every living thing in all our living and in all our dying. Next Sunday, on October 12, we will sing to our beloved God of creation, the source of those deep roots, mammoth trunks and outstretched branches! Through ritual, readings and hymns, we will sing to God a love song concerning this small vineyard of Yellowwoods planted way back in 1873, by the renowned Harvard botanist, Asa Gray.  

As preparation for our time of blessing these trees, and maybe even hugging them, I want to share a few bits of their story. Their lives have spanned three centuries! They have withstood the elements – snow, wind, rain and lightning.  They’ve lived a good, long life.  But, several large branches came down in a recent storm exposing anew just how hollowed and fragile these aging beauties have become.  Our Yellowwoods have provided the backdrop for generations of weddings, funerals and baptisms. Imagine countless family photo albums in which they are featured. They have lived through times of war and peace and depression. They have born witness to our Cambridge neighbors and passersby whose hearts will also weep as they read the sign we will post for them this week letting them know that these magnificent eyefuls are coming down later this month.  

As we take stock, I invite us to consider what was going on back in the early 1870’s, when this building was built (in 1872) and when those spectacular trees were planted in the year that followed.  Ulysses S Grant was President, with Schulyer Colfax as his V.P. (I went to Schulyer Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, NJ, so I couldn’t resist that tidbit).

It was the era of Reconstruction, and Women’s Suffrage, and the beginning of the Gilded Age.  In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York.   She was fined $100.  She never paid.  Go Susan B!  Meanwhile, John D. Rockefeller had just founded Standard Oil. Alexander Graham Bell was tinkering with prototypes of the telephone, and Thomas Edison, with early versions of light bulbs and phonographs!  Levi Strauss introduced his now famous blue jeans. Yellowstone National Park was established as the world's first national park. The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in New York City. Central Park was officially completed.   

Closer to home, the Boston Globe began publication, but still no Boston Red Sox or Boston Marathon. BU was just 5 years old.  The Great Boston Fire of 1872 was a 2-day disaster that destroyed about 65 acres and 776 buildings. The population of the City of Cambridge population was about 48,000, half of what it is today.  The great Charles Eliot, responsible for building up much of Harvard’s initial campus still seen today, was Harvard’s President, though Memorial Hall and Sanders Theatre would not appear for years.

Here at First Church, the community was just a few decades beyond the Unitarian controversy which split our church in two, First Parish and First Church, like two tree limbs shooting from the same trunk.  Alexander McKenzie was only 5 years into his 47-year tenure as pastor and oversaw the building of this structure in 1872.  The story of this building is one for another day. For today though, we should note that when those trees were planted, this beautiful building was less than a year old, and Asa Gray was a member of the Building Committee.   Our own Hunter Dupree, the world’s foremost Asa Gray scholar, has written the authoritative biography of Asa Gray.

Gray was Professor of Natural History at Harvard from 1842 to 1873.  He lived just down the road at 88 Garden St. Through the generous donation of his immense book and plant collections, he effectively created the botany department at Harvard. He was President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1871. Most famously, our church-going Asa Gray, a Deacon here at First Church, maintained a lifelong correspondence and friendship with none other than Charles Darwin.

According to one reference which captures it succinctly and well, “Darwin held Gray in high esteem: he dedicated his book Forms of Flowers (1877) to Gray and he wrote in 1881 "there is hardly any one in the world whose approbation I value more highly than I do yours." Gray, considered by Darwin to be his friend and "best advocate," also attempted to convince Darwin in these letters that [God's creation] was inherent in all forms of life, and to return to his faith. Gray saw nature as filled with "unmistakable and irresistible indications of [Gods’s] design" and argued that "God himself is the very last, irreducible causal factor and, hence, the source of all evolutionary change." Darwin agreed that his theories were "not…necessarily atheistical" but was unable to share Gray's belief.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asa_Gray]

The two intellectual powerhouses maintained a robust and always respectful dialogue across their differences. Those aren’t just any Yellowwoods! They are Asa Gray’s Yellowwoods and so it’s fitting that we also share their genus name — Cladrastis — which derives from the Greek klados, branch, and thraustos, fragile. While these enduring and thick-limbed trees are firmly rooted, the branches and twigs are surprisingly brittle. They are native of the Southern Appalachians, and are often called Kentucky Yellowwoods.

Gray died in 1888 and was buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. The cemetery named a surrounding garden, with a central fountain and numerous unusual tree varieties, in his honor. This past summer, I had the privilege of officiating at the burial of First Church member Betty Dupree, Hunter’s wife, right there in the Dupree family plot just a few yards away from Gray’s headstone, in the Asa Gray Gardens.

To this day, arborists who are just passing by have been known to stop in their tracks to admire our Yellowwoods.  A few years ago, our kids collected seedpods which were donated to the Arboretum and Mt. Auburn. We also planted two Yellowwood saplings that should be able to thrive all the more when the great giants come down.  We also plan to save some of the wood from the trunks, and hope to make offering plates, candle sticks and perhaps a new a communion set.

Much like the storied Washington Elm that came down in 1923 after some 200 years, our tall and mighty trees, through our memory and love for them, and through the care of next generations, will continue to be symbols of the natural cycles of life and death, and for us symbols of God’s creation, and of God’s abiding presence with us in all our living and dying.   As we celebrate communion today, may we do so with an awareness not only of all the fruits and vines and trees of the earth that nourish us all, but of that great cloud of witnesses, those First Church saints like Asa Gray and Betty Dupree, whose spirit and presence continue to shape our life together, from generation to generation.  Amen.

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