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Local Youth Discover Ancient Landmarks

Caring for Witness Trees.

Imagine an ancient Alexandria landmark has been discovered. Archeologists and reporters rush to the scene, each intent on describing and capturing the essence of what "the find" means to Alexandrians past and present. Now imagine that this landmark is in poor repair, a victim of community amnesia.

This ancient find is very real but not confined to a single part of our city. Indeed there are several areas where these genuine Witnesses to the Revolution can be found. These landmarks are a special group of ancient trees and part of Alexandria's living legacy.

For more than 200 years these unique trees have stood silent witness to passing of the ages. Each has demonstrated an enviable longevity despite threats of fire, vandalism, disease and the expansion of civilization.

Thirty years ago, a determined group of Alexandrians established the Bicentennial Tree Project. After an exhaustive multi-year, city-wide search, a group of 17 trees were identified as "Living Witnesses of the American Revolution." Each tree was given a plaque attesting to its distinction and designation. Of the original trees, disease and neglect have exacted a toll. Today only six of seventeen, including one designated "The Bicentennial Tree," remain standing. Their unique identification plaques are still visible to those who seek out these city elders.

LAST YEAR 'Morning Edition' host Bob Edwards commented that "Big Trees add heart to a community." A four-part public radio special profiled the impact of old trees on a variety of US communities. Unfortunately, Alexandria's ancient trees were not featured in the stories. With the passing of time our "Witness Trees" have become little noticed, forgotten landmarks waiting rediscovery.

When the Alexandria "Witness Trees" were officially identified, Jimmy Carter was President and our bicentennial celebrations were winding down. Beyond identification and designation, little was done to promote an ongoing appreciation of this living history. During the 1980s and 1990s, many of the "Witness Trees" died. Those that remain have until recently been forgotten by all except the English Ivy that threatens so many of our older trees.

But there is good news. A younger generation not born at the time of the original designation has taken an interest in the fate of the trees. Members of Cub Scout Pack 129, Alexandria's oldest scouting group, have taken action to promote a greater awareness and appreciation for Alexandriaís ancient canopy.

WITH THE SUPPORT of the Virginia Theological Seminary, the scouts recently visited two "Witness Treesî" and spent several hours working to remove decades old growth of constricting English Ivy. The scouts came away from the effort with greater awareness and pride in these special, natural landmarks.

Two of those trees reside on public land. A massive Willow Oak, officially designated in 1977 as Alexandria's Bicentennial Tree, overlooks the Holmes Run bike path. The second, a Sweet Gum, stands solemn vigil below the American flag in Alexandria National Cemetery off Wilkes Street. The other surviving trees are on private property including a White Oak at the 2nd Presbyterian Church site off North Quaker Lane.

The "Witness Tree" most accessible to public view is the Bicentennial Tree in Holmes Run Park. The tree is located approximately 100 yards from the park's Duke Street entrance.