College Street

In Memoriam, Tree of Love

The time of death was 1:00 a.m. The date was May 17, 2009, early Sunday morning on the weekend of final exams. The cause of death was old age and infirmity, exacerbated by stress.

Josh Chan ’08, the CRA of Wonnacott Commons, was a witness.

“It was a dark and stormy night,” he explained. “I came home to my room after being out and about in the dorm on a busy Saturday night.”

His room was the very corner room of the first floor of Battell South.

“It was raining hard and the wind was fierce, but my room was stuffy. I went to open the window, and I heard this enormous crashing sound. I thought the dorm was falling apart. I looked out the window, and I could see the streetlight on College Street, which had never been visible before. I knew then the tree had gone down, and I saw its big dark shape on the ground. I grabbed my flashlight and ran outside.”

There he was joined by other students who had heard the crash. They stood in stunned silence next to the erstwhile tree, reduced now to so many pieces.

It took only two days for College staff to cut it up and cart it off. All that was left was a circle, about 30 feet wide, of freshly seeded ground covered by straw. In just a couple of weeks, the grass grew in, and, by Reunion Weekend, nearly all traces of the Battell black willow were gone.

This tree was a landmark for students of many eras, venerable and durable, unlike any other tree on campus. A black willow, it sat on the southeastern corner of Battell, right next to the path. It resembled a tree from a Disney movie, or maybe from Shrek’s forest, fantasy vegetation, with an enormous base, three to four feet in diameter, and low, thick branches extending in all directions, with lots of foliage in the summer and autumn months.

Current students called it the Whomping Willow after the tree in Harry Potter stories. Students living on the north side of College Street—in Battell, the Chateau, Allen, or Coffrin Halls—would pass it dozens of times in a single day, coming back to their dorms or on their way to Bicentennial Hall from Munroe or the center of campus.

Tim Parsons, the College’s horticulturalist, estimated its age at about 100 years, “not that old, but old for its type (some of the oaks on campus are over 300 years old). It was one of our favorite trees,” he said, “but it was disintegrating before our very eyes.”

On his blog, Middlebury Landscape, on May 18, Parsons explained the cause of the tree’s demise: “The black willow was cabled together up top, in about four or five places. . . . It was rotting around the bolts, albeit slowly. The tree leafed out last week and all the leaves helped to act like a sail, catching all the wind. One bolt probably pulled through the branch, causing unequal strain, and the tree fell apart.”

Down it went, ka-boom, in the middle of the night.

The Whomping Willow at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was a violent tree, which attacked humans. Our black willow was anything but. It embraced humans. “In my first year,” reminisced Chan, “when I lived in Battell, my friends and I would go outside on warm nights and just hang out in the tree.”

In my era, it was the Tree of Love.

Back in the 1960s, and before, Battell Hall was the biggest dorm on campus and was full of beautiful freshman girls. (It was okay then to call them “girls,” and okay too to call them “freshmen”). These freshman girls had hours, however, curfews: 10:30 on weeknights and midnight on weekends. Woe betide anyone coming in later than that.

Back then, if you got to Battell with your date early on a weekend, say 15 minutes before curfew, you might get a coveted spot on the tree of love. Its trunk and branches were so thick, and extended so far, that up to 20 couples could be accommodated. It was a great place to “make out,” allowing as it did a modicum of privacy away from the lights in front of Battell, with a canopy of branches overhead. Privacy was in short supply in those days. The tree provided good support. When making out, it’s always nice to have something to lean against,
as I recall.

The Tree of Love, at the pedestrian entrance of Battell Hall since the dorm’s construction in 1950, the tree whose arms welcomed us, so many generations of us, with all our innocent longings, gone now, but not forgotten.

— Karl Lindholm ’67

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