The first words I read about trees was the much-panned poem by Joyce Kilmer. My mother had me memorize and recite “Trees” when I was about ten. I remember the opening and closing lines–“I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree,” and “For poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree.,” Though I was a generation before Maurice Sendak’s books, I was drawn to his powerful trees when reading his poems to children. And of course I adored J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents, heroic trees who helped the good guys elude the bad guys in the Ring Trilogy. Even Shakespeare gave me important trees in “Macbeth,” when Macduff disguises his army to look like the woods of Dunsinane.
I have my own experiences with trees, three of which I will share. I was encouraged to learn to amuse myself as a child and one of my favorite outdoor games was with my fleet of tiny cars/trucks. I’d take them into the side yard and put them on adventures around and through open spaces of a huge old sycamore tree. My game was “getting away,” so I’d hide them from an invisible enemy intent on forcing them back into their tiny, dark garage. The tree was both protection and helper. When I rested from trying to escape, I’d hide myself close to the gnarly trunk and feel hidden. As an adolescent, I had learned to garden with help from my mother who was on her knees in the dirt as often as time allowed, She let me plant tiny bulbs one fall–snowdrops–telling me they would be the first things to show life in the spring. I chose to put my bulbs at the base of our adolescent magnolia tree in the back yard and in early Mlarch, I’d run out and see if there was even the tiniest show of pale green. Again, I’d sit next to the magnolia’s sleek trunk for long stretches, perhaps hoping I’d be on site the moment first-life showed itself. That never happened, but I loved the tree with its huge, shiny leaves and magical white blooms.
My ;third tree story happens decades after my childhood ones. When my then-partner and I moved into our house–where I still live forty-seven years later–we enjoyed a big elm out back near the garage. When Dutch elm disease began ravaging trees all over town, we signed up to get biannual treatments of a chemical researched at the University of Minnesota that protected injected trees from the dreaded beetles. That tree still is in the back yard but lost a giant canopy about ten years ago in a straight-line storm. It broke my heart to watch the caring group of men come and saw her branches into portable segments and take her away. She now has a solid metal cord connecting her two remaining segments so storms can’t tear them off the major trunk. My arborist and I know that the open wound means her life is ebbing, but he supports my wish not to lose this ancient tree– an Ent of my own, I like to think.
In the last decade, several germinal books have been published documenting how much trees communicate with other trees, support offspring of their own kinds, watch out for other trees that are having trouble, and, of course, keep temperatures where they exist measurably cooler as we heat our planet to dangerous levels. The Overstory, In Search of the Mother Tree, The Island of Missing Trees, and Entangled Lives are just a few of these fascinating works. Whereas I used to think of trees as fundamentally different from creatures of the earth and the sea and the sky because they were stationary, I now understand that underground, trees live an active and sentient life, grounded in cooperation and community and defying Darwinian thinking based in competition and mere survival..
So Kilmer’s words come back to me, fresher and truer than before. And I no longer join in judging them as sentimental. He wrote his lines because he had gleaned their majesty and mystery. We could do well to follow his lead before we clear-cut more old-growth forests, and before we destroy some of the noblest works of creation.,