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To start at the end, our back-page feature, “Old Penn,” offers a striking photograph by Candace diCarlo of a slab from a 4,000-year-old pine tree held by the Penn Museum. It was among a number of long-lived species whose tree rings were instrumental in refining the technique of radiocarbon dating, making it possible to create an accurate timeline of human civilizations back to 7,400 BCE, as explained in senior editor Trey Popp’s accompanying text.

The item relates back to Trey’s cover story, “The Olden Bough,” on Annenberg Professor of History Jared Farmer and his recent book Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees. (Candace also took the photo of Farmer, sitting beside the oldest ginkgo tree in North America, that opens the story.) Elderflora, which Trey calls “a compendium of wonderful facts” and a reviewer deemed a “fascinating farrago of a book,” has a lot to say about trees’ relative immortality, humanity’s complex and shifting attitudes toward them (combining rampant destruction and belated veneration), and their current fragility due to climate change.

Trey also interviewed Farmer while they strolled last fall in The Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia, where they touched on how the Utah-bred historian’s arboreal attraction first took hold when he arrived on Stanford’s campus for graduate school, which led to his earlier book Trees in Paradise: The Botanical Conquest of California.

Aside from working out the kinks in carbon-14, a familiar use that humans have made of ancient trees (after cutting them down) is to mark significant events on their rings. Which events, and how they are memorialized, often change over time. In one such display that Farmer references, Columbus goes from discoverer of the New World to a mere passerby from the 1930s to 2000s.

One of the more contested dates in our culture during the last few years has been 1619—as in the 1619 Project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was this year’s guest speaker at the 22nd annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture in Social Justice. Associate editor Dave Zeitlin C’03 reports on her conversation with Annenberg Presidential Associate Professor Sarah Jackson in “Gazetteer.” Two threads in the talk—on the economic side of King’s advocacy and the continuing struggle to create space for Black stories in the culture—link to feature articles in this issue.

In “A Life’s Calling,” Samantha Drake CGS’06 profiles Rev. Liz Theoharis C’98, who in collaboration with Rev. William J. Barber II has revived the Poor People’s Campaign planned by King in the months before his assassination in 1968. The article also covers Theoharis’s upbringing in a household where religious faith and activism were intertwined, her time at Penn (which included the first of an estimated 20 arrests for protest activities), and her efforts as a biblical scholar to reframe the interpretation of the Gospel passage “The poor you will always have with you.”

University Chaplain and VP Chaz Howard C’00—who didn’t know Theoharis when they overlapped at Penn but considers her a friend now—calls her among the “most impactful” ministers in the country and points to the significance of her and Barber’s partnership, as a white woman and a Black man, in leading the campaign.

And in “Rich History, New Visions,” Julia M. Klein reports on the year-long residency at Penn Live Arts of the Negro Ensemble Company, which culminated in the world premiere of Mecca is Burning on February 15 (racing our deadline to go to press). Perhaps best known for A Soldier’s Play (later filmed as A Soldier’s Story), the NEC has a long history of presenting challenging yet accessible work on Black lives. The new play is a collaboration among five playwrights, some of whom also contributed to a program of one-acts presented last fall, in which four Black families in Harlem must confront a nationwide outbreak of white supremacist violence.

Finally, both a willfully cut-down tree and some racist assumptions figure in “Sir Henry Thornton, On and Off the Rails.” But the bulk of Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69’s latest historical profile concerns the Penn alumnus’s exploits as the Allies’ World War I railroad chief (for which he was knighted in Britain) and head of Canadian National Railways, and the pride, illness, and scandal that caused the downfall of the one-time “Superman” of the railroading world.

—John Prendergast C’80

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