Daily Archives: March 5, 2011

Planting trees for the dead

I have mixed feelings about this:

More than 100 miles of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania roadway is about to get a little more green thanks to funding from the Commonwealth and a vision by Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership officials who created a program to honor soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton, along with journey officials said Friday that the Commonwealth Transportation Board will provide a $300,000 grant to begin the Living Legacy Tree Planting program. Through the program, one tree for every soldier killed in the war will get planted along the journey’s 180-mile National Scenic Byway, which stretches from Gettysburg to Monticello.

Honoring soldiers is a worthy cause, and so is making America a little more green.  Still, three hundred grand is a lot of money.  I realize that for the Commonwealth Transportation Board to shell out dollars the project probably needs to be transportation-related, but every time I see dollars like that getting shelled out I can’t help but think about all the endangered battlefield land and deteriorating artifacts out there.

Wyatt said over the course of about four years, they will plant 620,000 trees – at about $100 each — for the soldiers who perished during the Civil War. The number killed, journey officials said, represented about 10 percent of the nation’s population at the time.

Perhaps you’re wondering where they got that 10% figure.  I’m wondering that myself.  I think it was actually closer to two percent, which is still (as Melanie Griffith reportedly said of the Holocaust) “a lot of people.”

The idea to plant trees developed after each community along the journey’s scenic byway was asked to create a legacy project in preparation for the upcoming sesquicentennial of the First Battle of Manassas. Community officials decided to work collectively with the journey Wyatt said, and they wanted to see something different to honor those who fought .

“The mayors and chairmans [of the communities] said ‘we don’t need another flagpole’…and asked what can we do that would be bigger than any of us,” Wyatt said.

Connaughton said the state really supported this project because it brings together three major issues in Virginia- education, economic development and transportation. This project will be something schools can get involved in and it has the potential to bring more tourists to the Commonwealth.

This “will help future generations of history buffs, students and tourists visualize the sheer scale of the Civil War in this region and remind all of the courage and blood that was shed along this hallowed road and the surrounding landscape,” Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-Va) said

I’m not so sure that this will be enough to draw tourists; I hope it does.  Anyway, trying to help people get their heads around the concept of 620,000 dead is a good idea.  It’s too easy for numbers of that scale to become meaningless abstractions.

I once worked on a temporary exhibit about the Gettysburg Address.  Knowing that it would be difficult for visitors to visualize 51,000 casualties, I briefly flirted with the idea of constructing an acrylic case and filling it with that number of some small object.  I abandoned that plan pretty quickly, simply because assembling 51,000 items of any size in a museum gallery is all but impossible. Even one for each of the dead, leaving out the wounded and captured, would have been highly impractical.  It was a pretty sobering realization.

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