I attended Joyce Kilmer Elementary School in Chicago, where the first line of Kilmer’s best-known poem was painted in old-worldly script above the stage of the auditorium: ‘I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.’ The metaphor still works for me, but the rhymed couplets throughout the poem (I will spare you) edge close to doggerel. Thankfully, loads of other poems about trees have been published. I’ve recently discovered the French-Canadian poet Hélène Dorion, whose collection ‘Mes forêts,’ as the title suggests, features trees. Here’s a sample:
Trees bite into the soil
their bodies parched
in the cold of their roots
gaunt shadows bodies
we hear the song
of fracture and desire
body like the tide going out
lost in its night
body of love and storm
given over to the earth
that it licks as if
it were a wall to pierce through
- Hélène Dorion (Translated by Susanna Lang)
With talk of today being the Spring Equinox in the marginalia of the news, I was reminded of St Joseph’s Day. It’s the day before the equinox, but nevertheless it was for me as a child the Italo-American version of St Patrick’s Day. It was customary to wear red. In Italy, it’s also celebrated by gorging on a zeppola, a custard-filled pastry with cherries on top – the cherries represent the buds on the trees in spring.
At the start of the year, I enrolled in another MOOC intended for French undergraduates to help me expand my French vocabulary. The course, entitled ‘Les Arbes,’ was about the biology of trees and their contribution to the Earth’s biodiversity. Once again, learning scientific French highlighted the paucity of my scientific English. Many of the words I looked up in French were the same or close to it in English.
In Cambridgeshire where I live, a furore has erupted over new plans led by the county council to build a busway (a bus-only road) from a new 6000-home development to the town of Cambridge. Building such a road will involve cutting down 1,000 trees. The majority of these arboreal victims are in the Coton Orchard, one of the UK’s largest and oldest orchards, with a unique ecosystem that cannot be mitigated with planting new trees elsewhere. This is part of a pattern in Britain, where the mass felling of trees has been carried out in the interest of road building. In 2018, despite two years of protests from residents in Sheffield, the city council allowed for the felling of some 17,500 trees. It later turned out that the justification for this was based on misunderstandings of an environmental survey coupled with misinforming the public.
I’m not just being sentimental about trees – all trees everywhere. Trees are also a crop that provide wood for furniture and pulp for toilet paper, among other things. Some trees also need to be cut down due to disease or public health reasons. The destruction of trees in our parks and towns is a different matter altogether. With the loss of these trees, the bird and insect populations, already in catastrophic decline, suffer greatly. To this, it’s necessary to add negative effects of such barbarous acts on the human population, both in terms of our physical health (such as the quality of the air that we breathe) and psychological health (where studies have shown improvements in emotional well-being with the introduction of sylvan spaces).
Every year, I buy an artsy calendar to add some colour and visual creativity to my home office in Ely. It’s also a place to jot down writing deadlines, meetings and health club activities – things that are on my phone calendar as well but are sometimes forgotten when my head is in the comfort of clouds. My 2023 calendar has a tree theme. Every month displays a painting of trees by some famous, and some not so famous, European artists. Looking at these photos of paintings everyday – these meadows, these tree-lined shores, these shaded forests – gives my days a natural sense of calm and beauty. Since according to a French professor lecturing on the MOOC, there are over 60,000 species of trees, every year could have a tree theme, a different tree calendar, and in the remainder of my lifetime, I still will have only scratched the surface.