The Secret Lives of Parks

The Giving Trees

Episode Summary

Witness trees stood in significant places at key moments in American history, linking past and present and shaping our understanding of both. But what happens when witness trees fall? A unique partnership between the Rhode Island School of Design and the National Park Service lets their stories live on.

Episode Notes

Witness trees were present for pivotal moments in our history but the stories they would tell, if they could, don’t have to die with them―thanks to a fascinating partnership between national park sites and student artists and designers. Host Todd Christopher visits Antietam National Battlefield’s renowned witness tree ― the Burnside Sycamore ― with natural resources manager Joe Calzarette, explores The Witness Tree Project’s unique mashup of history and design with RISD faculty members and founders Dale Broholm and Dan Cavicchi, and learns about the project’s impact from RISD student and participant Esther Akintoye.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer

Learn more about The Witness Tree Project and view galleries of the objects created by student artists at

The Secret Lives of Parks is brought to you by: 

Todd Christopher – Producer & Host
Jennifer Errick – Producer & Host
Bev Stanton – Online Producer

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 13
The Giving Trees

Todd Christopher: Above all, witness trees were there, standing in significant places at key moments in American history, linking past and present in shaping our understanding of both. But what happens when witness trees fall? A unique partnership between the Rhode Island School of Design and the National Park Service lets their stories live on. I'm Todd Christopher, and this is the Secret Lives of Parks.

There is no shortage of superlatives in the National Park system. Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. Denali is the highest peak ― and Death Valley the lowest point ― in all of North America. General Sherman in Sequoia and Kings Canyon is the largest tree in the world. 

As inspiring as these may be, some of the records are more sobering. Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland preserves the story of what is still the bloodiest single day in American history, September 17th, 1862, and a turning point in the Civil War.

With its rolling hills and arched stone bridges on a tree lined stream, it's such a tranquil pastoral setting that it almost belies the unimaginable violence and sorrow of that day. And on that landscape stands what may be the last living link to the battle: a sycamore tree that bore silent witness to one of the darkest days in our history. I've come to Antietam to see it for myself, and I'm walking down a gravel road leading to one of those stone bridges ― in the footsteps of so many union soldiers on that fateful day ― with the person who knows that tree better than anyone.

Joe Calzarette: My name is Joe Calzarette. I'm the park's natural resources program manager, and basically my job is ― with the rest of our staff and resources ― is to take care of all the natural elements on the park.

Todd Christopher: And those resources include this incredible specimen that you're about to tell me about.

Joe Calzarette: Burnside Sycamore is what we know it as. It's the only witness tree on the battlefield that's in a photograph. We do believe we have other witness trees. We know that by the size and diameter of the trees. We don't bore the trees to get a core sample. We don't do that, because we don't want to wound the tree. It's a little bit harder a process to do. We don't want to take that chance. This tree, however, it shows up in a photograph and we’ll go over and show you that photograph. And it was taken by Alexander Gardner.

Todd Christopher: Gardner didn't set out to photograph the tree. A protege of the Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, he is best remembered for his portraits of President Abraham Lincoln and for documenting the horrifying aftermath of the battle of Antietam. Arriving just two days after the fighting, Gardner took dozens of stark and unflinching photographs of the battlefield before the dead had been buried, something Americans had never seen before, and captured the image of the tree in the process.

Joe Calzarette: This bridge that we're about to walk across, prior to the battle, was known as the Lower Bridge or Rohrbach's Bridge. After the battle, it became known as Burnside's Bridge, named after General Ambrose Everett Burnside. It was his 9th Corps, or elements of it, that charged across this bridge from the east to the west. So he was coming this way towards us, up this hill, and he faced Toombs’s Georgia Brigades. So ever since then, this bridge has been known as Burnside's Bridge.

Todd Christopher: We cross the bridge and stand in the shade of a sycamore tree rising from a tight little wedge of the stream bank, nestled between Burnside Bridge, Antietam Creek and a fence line. An interpretive display features the Gardner photo and it's unmistakable that this is the same tree.

Joe Calzarette: Where you're standing right here, literally the Confederates were in those pits ahead of you across the creek. And the Union soldiers were right behind this wall where we were. So I mean it was literally on the crossfire. And then wave after wave of Union regiments, the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania finally took the bridge. But that was the final assault that went across the bridge that swept the Confederates back. And of course they were moving towards the town of Sharpsburg and the battle unfolded. At the end of the day, the Union Army kind of wound up in the hills above where the bridge is, and the battle ended in a stalemate.

Todd Christopher: While the battle wasn't decisive, it did put an end to the Confederates’ push to the north. The Union declared Antietam a narrow victory and five days later, President Abraham Lincoln issued his initial Emancipation Proclamation, altering the course of the war. But the cost on both sides was enormous. Some 23,000 men were killed or wounded over the 12 hours of fighting that culminated at the Burnside Bridge and the sycamore tree, which Calzarette estimates was perhaps 15 or 20 years old at the time, was present for all of it.

Joe Calzarette: So it witnessed the battle action, some of the heaviest bloodiest action that took place down here by the bridge. That tree was there and probably inside of it, and there may be some bullets perhaps. But people really enjoy this tree, because from a human standpoint, people like to relate to something that was alive. The bridge is an inanimate object. Dunker Church is an inanimate object. The Bloody Lane is a road. But this tree is alive. And it was alive and people like to stand next to it and say, "Wow, this is something that was actually here." It's not going to be with us all the time, like live things, things die.

Todd Christopher: Hopefully that won't be any time soon. At first glance, the Burnside looks to me like, well, a regular sycamore, happily thriving near the waterside like the countless others I've seen before. It seems healthy enough, with robust foliage that overhangs the bridge and at least some of the patchy whitish bark that's characteristic of the species. But sycamores can live 500 years or more and reach heights of nearly 100 feet, and this one is decidedly not as lofty.

Joe Calzarette: The tree is a little stunted. It's really ― for its age could be a little bit bigger. In fact, if you go up and down Antietam Creek, you're going to see larger sycamore trees that are actually about the same age, or even really younger that are bigger. The first thing you'll notice about the tree is the trunk. When the trunk of the tree goes into the ground, most trees kind of fan out at the base. This one here goes straight in, almost like a telephone pole. Well, that's a sign that the roots are girdled. Roots of a tree should go down into the ground, deep and expand out. These grow around in a circle.

Todd Christopher: There's good reason for that. Growing so close to the bridge and hugging the bank of Antietam Creek, the tree really has nowhere else for its roots to go.

Joe Calzarette: So that's one challenge that we have with this tree. Can't do anything about that. The other challenge that we were having is soil compaction. Everybody wanted to walk up, before this fence was here to keep people from doing so, up to the base of the tree. “Look, take a picture of me next to the tree. It looks good, I want to touch it.” But the problem with that is with soil compaction, it creates a hard surface that water and nutrients can't get down into soil to the roots, that's a problem.

Todd Christopher: Luckily, the tree's situation is manageable. Park staff have stabilized the nearby stream bank to prevent erosion, cabled some of the tree's massive limbs and erected a split rail fence that allows visitors to get close ― but not too close. And though its roots may be girdled, the rest of the tree is in pretty good health.

Joe Calzarette: The tree above the ground, Todd, is in great shape. Come with me just a little bit.

Todd Christopher: Sure.

Joe Calzarette: You look at the joint there, it's very typical of sycamores to grow and then kind of branch off. It has what we call a U joint. That's a good joint. A V joint would be bad, because water would get down to the crack, wintertime, expand and contract and could split. That's a good strong joint.

Todd Christopher: Still, Calzarette is prepared for the inevitable. And the story of how he's prepared really floors me. He recounts working with Famous & Historic Trees, a program of the conservation group, American Forests, that for a time collected seeds from significant trees across the country, back in the 1990s.

Joe Calzarette: One of my jobs was to go up in a cherry picker ― and I'm afraid of heights, so I didn't do so well ― and pick seeds. And I picked about a half of a five gallon bucket, sent them to Famous & Historic Trees, and they propagated the seeds. So if you wanted to have a Burnside Sycamore in your backyard, you buy this little container that had the tree in it and you would grow the tree. Part of the deal was, is that when I needed seeds back, that we would get them. So on this battlefield, I have three Burnside Sycamore trees. We had six, three died, we have three left. And to hopefully if anything ever happened to this tree, we could replace it with the same genotype from this tree.

Todd Christopher: That's amazing.

Joe Calzarette: Of course, Famous & Historic Trees isn't around anymore, so I’ve got to make sure nothing happens to these other three trees.

Todd Christopher: It's like a historic seed bank.

Joe Calzarette: Exactly.

Todd Christopher: Wow.

Joe Calzarette: The tree really in its lifespan, Todd ―if you look at the years, like I said, the tree can live up to 500, 600 years ― it'd be like a young adult. It could live for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, probably because of some of the challenges that we're talking about, it won't. But we're hoping that as stewards and here in the park and what we do, that we're going to keep this tree to the longest lifespan that it could be. It could be here another a hundred years, I hope. But with nature, with wind and lightning ― hey, you never know. So just enjoy the tree when it's here. And like I said, if it could tell stories, it would have some stories to tell for sure.

Todd Christopher: The Burnside Sycamore is a stellar example, but it's just one of many witness trees to be found across the park system, from battlefields like Antietam and Gettysburg to the homes of presidents and historic figures. But what happens when those trees eventually do fall and to the stories they would tell if they could?

At the Rhode Island School of Design or RISD, Dale Broholm and Daniel Cavicchi tackle those questions with their students and the results are extraordinary. In 2009, Broholm, a longtime furniture maker and instructor and Cavicchi, a history professor and administrator founded the Witness Tree Project, a unique partnership between RISD and the National Park Service, where fallen witness trees receive new life through the artwork and relevant objects that student artists create from their wood.

Part seminar, part Studio, the Witness Tree Project has focused on a dozen sites since its inception, with each year's project culminating in the creation and display of student works informed by their study and interpretation of the history of each site. It's a remarkable way to complete the circle. The seed of the idea was planted 15 years ago when Broholm traveled to Gettysburg with friends, including a park service historian, and learned of the agency's efforts to identify witness trees. He was intrigued and, as an artisan, also curious to know what happened to the wood when the trees fell.

Dale Broholm: So the wheels started turning and I asked if there'd be any interest in potentially trying to work something out, where we could get some of these witness trees, obtain some of these witness trees and do something with them at school, and just things started to roll from there.

Todd Christopher: That's Dale Broholm. Back at RISD, he and Cavicchi had the support of their departments and got to work.

Dale Broholm: So then we started the conversation of what could this mean? What could we do with this? The idea of taking these trees and making it something more significant than just a studio class where objects are made from this wood, but that's all.

Dan Cavicchi: And from my perspective, it was quite interesting, because teaching history at an art and design school is a bit of a challenge. The students are there to be in the studio and to really engage in their making.

Todd Christopher: And that's Dan Cavicchi.

Dan Cavicchi: And I'm a pretty good lecturer, I think. And I had been doing my utmost in a more conventional setting of a history class. But this provided me a new opportunity to teach history, to think about history in a new way, and to really marry the kinds of work that the students were familiar with, in terms of studio design with liberal arts. And to really find ways to connect those two realms at a deeper level than they were connected ordinarily.

Todd Christopher: The objects themselves truly demonstrate the depth of that connection. Describing them here really wouldn't do them justice. So I will simply encourage you to view the gallery of work the student artists created for each site. Everything from functional tools to finally crafted specimen boxes. Please see the show notes for this episode for links. Again, here's Dan Cavicchi.

Dan Cavicchi: There's a whole way in which the Witness Tree Project flips the usual practice of history on its head. Usually historians are looking at old objects and reading history from those objects. In the Witness Tree Project, we are making objects from this historic wood and writing history into those objects. And between seminar and studio, we go back and forth between those two things. We're looking at traditional evidence for historical events and trends, but at the same time, the students in the studio are thinking about, well, how do I represent meaning in objects that I myself am creating?

Todd Christopher: And Dale Broholm.

Dale Broholm: They're interpretations are always very interesting and engaging and not necessarily what we would expect out of them. So we found at different sites over the years that the students dig into certain topics and express those through their objects, in a way or with a substance that maybe the interpretive staff or the curatorial staff at the site aren't thinking about, aren't investigating necessarily.

And it gives the opportunity for a new conversation to be held both within our group, our class, but also in a greater audience at the site. And it's really interesting to see what the students could do, but because they're nothing but clever, and they're very engaged, they're digging into what they're doing with Dan, and it gives them for the studio side and for their own design practice, another tool to then use when they go out into their professional practice.

Esther Akintoye: So it was an image that I carved in the wood shop of a tree, and in it I had etched, resources are not infinite.

Todd Christopher: That's Esther Akintoye, a recent graduate and master of design candidate in interior architecture at RISD. She participated in this year's project, which focused on Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Site in Woodstock, Vermont, where the student works were on display through October. She's describing the object she created, which like those of her classmates ― including snowshoes, paddles, and instruments ― explored the site's ecology and history of conservation that traces back to the Abenaki people.

Esther Akintoye: I was thinking about the readings that we did. There was one reading that really struck out with me, which was, and I can't remember the exact title of it, but it was talking about the kind of... I say it with quotes, "Transference of land," which really was like the forceful taking of the land by the colonizers that came from Europe during that time. And I thought about through our readings, just understanding how the Abenaki tribe tended for the land. They saw the land completely different the way European settlers saw the land. So I was interested in themes of ownership and kind of like how the resources that we have as well are not infinite.

Todd Christopher: The fresh perspectives of student artists are vital to a process that can help to further the interpretation of a site's history. In its first year, the Witness Tree Project focused on Hampton National Historic Site in Maryland, a site that recently has been reckoning with the untold stories of the hundreds of people once enslaved there. Here's Dale Broholm.

Dale Broholm: The first one with Hampton was really interesting in that, it was basically a house museum and the interpretive staff was talking about the wealth of the family, the size of the house, how important it was. And they were starting to transition to the other stories along with those stories. And those other stories were the people behind the building of the house, the indentured servants. It was a slave plantation, but up until that time they really weren't addressing it.

And so then the students just through their course of studies with them and the seminar, started to dig into this and they really wanted to engage. They wanted to tell those stories, so their objects represented some of that. And when the pieces went back to Hampton for exhibition, the response we had from the interpretive staff after the exhibition was they were so pleased, because it allowed these conversations to start and it was a direction they're moving anyhow. So it was really beneficial for them.

Todd Christopher: The Witness Tree Project is so moving and effective, because it is not a revision, but instead an extension, of the history of a place, honoring the past and bridging the future in the timeless way that only art and imagination can. Every year of the project, each in its own way has been a success. But both Broholm and Cavicchi point to one installment where everything just seemed to come together, where true partnership between student, teacher and park staff alike elevated the experience for everyone. Again, Dale Broholm.

Dale Broholm: We did a class at the Martin Van Buren site in Kinderhook. And everybody we've dealt with at the Park Service from my perspective, has been great. They're overworked, probably underpaid, and they have a full plate and they make time for us, which is really quite nice. Some of the sites, the staff, the personnel get it more than other ones and Martin Van Buren was... Those folks were just incredible. They welcomed us in. They had us there and when we had the exhibition, they integrated all the objects into the house and that they weren't just centralized for exhibition, they were placed throughout the house in appropriate places that the conversation would be between the new object, the old object, and then the viewership, and it was wonderful.

Todd Christopher: And one more time, here's Dan Cavicchi.

Dan Cavicchi: For me, it really encapsulated the whole project and what we were trying to do, in terms of history and creating conversation around history. So how does the past exist, and how has it sustained in objects? And that's really what that exhibition just put front and center. So you had old objects and new objects both telling stories in slightly different ways, and they would resonate with each other and at times you wouldn't quite know if the object was actually new or old, but every object forced you to think in that exhibit. And it made the whole Van Buren estate seem like a new place.

Todd Christopher: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 13, The Giving Trees, was produced by Todd Christopher. And our small but mighty team includes Jennifer Errick, Bev Stanton, and Vanessa Pius. More at the Original theme music by Chad Fischer. Learn more about the Witness Tree Project and view galleries of the objects created by student artists at Do you know of the story we should tell? Email your suggestions to, and hey, you never know, we just might feature it here. For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations, with more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more and join us at