A man named Joyce Kilmer managed to publish five books and have five children before being killed in World War I. But he is remembered only for one imperishable poem, called “Trees,” which concludes with the modest words:
“Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”
True enough, I suppose, but people have been making trees, of various kinds, and making numerous things out of them, for a long time.
We could start with the family tree, which is of course a metaphor for all the closest human relationships, and their depiction in graphic terms. Everybody has one and appears on somebody else’s. In fact, if you let the Science of Genealogy take you far enough back, we are all somewhere on everybody else’s family tree. And, with the guidance of other sciences, you can say that includes every creature that has ever lived — although of course many of the branches stopped producing twigs at different times and for different reasons.
But let’s not get carried away here. For most practical purposes, it’s enough to know that practically all of us had a father and a mother — although even those vital statistics can be less clear-cut than might sometimes be wished.
But this takes us back to Kilmer’s lines about:
“A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the Earth’s sweet-flowing breast”
Which we might characterize as a kind of arboreal soft porn, along with Shakespeare’s merry recollections:
“Under the Greenwood Tree,
Who loves to lie with me. . .”
In case you’re wondering, there is no such species as a Greenwood tree. Nor is there, of course, any such botanical entity as a “Christmas tree.” And, whether “the tree-tops glisten,” at that time of year, in your part of the world (as described by Irving Berlin), that same season would, for some reason, have us singing over and over again about a Pear tree, forever inhabited by a partridge.
Speaking of Pear trees, one is reminded not only of how many different types of pears there are, but of the fact that trees of some kind are the source of all our edible fruit. All fruits have seeds — from the giant closely packed pits of the Loquat (with which I’m very familiar, having such a tree in my garden) to the tiny, dispersed seeds of the Kiwi (which we associate with New Zealand, though it was only introduced there about 1900 from its native China). And the seeds, whether edible or not, are not there for our benefit, or inconvenience, but are simply part of nature’s reproductive processes.
But equally irrelevant to nature’s interests, and important to ours, are the uses we make of the solid material derived from the trunks and branches — and even the roots — of various kinds of trees, a material we call, at different stages of its refinement, timber, lumber, or simply wood. Joyce Kilmer may have seen a tree (for some reason female) as looking “at God all day,” and lifting “her leafy arms to pray,” but, to the lumberjack, sawmill operator, or furniture salesman, her reveries count for little when there are objects to be made, and bills to be paid.
Besides, there are so many trees in the world, so many forests and woodlands, that, even if our own species succeeds in burning and devastating vast areas, it will all come back, once humanity’s again out of the way.
After all, it wasn’t so long ago that, to most humans, the densely forested areas were fearsome places, as we are reminded by all the folktales concerning the dangers of being lost in the woods, and at the mercy of wolves and other wild animals. The history of the American frontier is basically a story of clearing away the trees, so that “pioneers” and “settlers” could plant crops, build cities, and push on Westward. (At the same time, Russian frontiersmen, involved in the same kinds of activities, were pushing east.)
Meanwhile, Joyce Kilmer insists on anthropomorphing and feminizing these rugged fellow dwellers of our troposphere, paying romantic tribute to:
“A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair.”
To Kilmer, trees symbolized stability, but to me, they have meant freedom — at least as celebrated in my hippy version of “Home on the Range”:
“Home, home in the trees,
Where all people can do as they please,
Where seldom is heard
A middle-class word,
And Reality’s just a disease.”