Dey House ‘literary grove’ sprouts history, community

UI Arborists planted eight saplings from trees owned or connected to famous authors and poets, including Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Edgar Allan Poe.


University of Iowa arborists, Alan Allgood (left) and Andy Dahl (right), plant a red maple tree from Henry David Thoreau’s garden during the Literary Grove tree planting by the University of Iowa Arborists and Writers’ Workshop at the Dey House on Oct. 23.

Josie Fischels, Arts Editor

Beneath an overcast afternoon sky, University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop student Santiago Sanchez read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Wood-Pile,” to a masked crowd gathered outside the Dey House. Beside the writer, UI Arborist Andy Dahl and partner Alan Allgood planted a small birch sapling from the tree that once belonged to Robert Frost himself. 

Students and faculty of the Writers’ Workshop gathered to celebrate the planting of eight historic trees on Friday, which all now stand around the perimeter of the Dey House. Armed against the 40-degree weather with coats, scarves, and hot cider, members of the workshop watched as the saplings were planted, each growth descended from the original tree owned or connected in some way to a famous author or poet. 

The project is over a year in the making. Dahl approached the Writers’ Workshop with the idea to plant a literary grove last fall, planning to purchase a set of saplings from American Heritage Trees, a nursery in Tennessee that sells seeds and clippings from historic trees. Each sapling ranges from $50 to $125.

University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop student Santiago Sanchez (right), reads “The Wood-Pile” by Robert Frost as University of Iowa arborist, Andy Dahl (left), listens in after planting a birch tree from Frost’s garden during the Literary Grove tree planting by the University of Iowa Arborists and Writers’ Workshop at the Dey House on Oct. 23.

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In the spring, Dahl purchased eight seedlings, including a Hackberry from Edgar Allan Poe’s garden, a White Oak from William Faulkner’s garden, and a Sycamore from Mark Twain’s garden, which has stood for over 300 years. 

“I just think it’s very fitting,” Dahl said. “These trees are very fitting for the landscape around them — the world-renowned Writers Workshop. There are stories to tell in the halls of that building, why not out on the grounds?”

While the planting date —  originally set for Arbor Day — had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Dahl said he felt happy to be able to plant the trees before winter overtakes Iowa. The UI Arborists’ “Tree Team” maintains around 8,000 trees on campus, and will continue to keep a close eye on the saplings’ health as they begin to take root in the cold.

Event organizer Sasha Khmelnik said the Writers’ Workshop said they were delighted by the idea of planting a literary grove when Dahl approached them a year ago. Even though it feels like such a small thing, she said, it means a lot to be able to gather outdoors to celebrate even small moments of community. 

“It’s nice that the tributes to writing are living things that will grow and will be there for longer than most of us will be alive,” she said. “And there is something really lovely just about creating a natural space that celebrates the lineage of writing and gives that physical embodiment to the community that lives here of humans who are writing.”

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University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop student Matthew B. Kelley (left), reads aloud original work inspired by Alex Haley as University of Iowa arborists, Andy Dahl (center) and Alan Allgood (right), plant a pecan tree from Haley’s garden during the Literary Grove tree planting by the University of Iowa Arborists and Writers’ Workshop at the Dey House on Oct. 23.

Student volunteers from the workshop read works by or inspired by each of the famous writers as the arborists worked their way around the Dey House. Fiction writer Belinda Tang read an excerpt from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury while Dahl and Allgood planted his tree. 

“It’s really amazing that in 50 years or however long it takes to grow, this garden is going to be filled with trees,” Tang said. “And it’s incredible to think that these trees came from Mississippi and all of these faraway places to be planted here. It’s really great.”

For Dahl, having trees descended from ones owned by so many inspiring writers — some that authors like Mark Twain may have even sat or walked beneath — means bringing their histories along with them.

“They’re small, they’re saplings really, but what they lack in size they more than make up for in history and a story to tell,” he said.