“I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree.” You may not think much of Joyce Kilmer’s poem, but he has a point. Trees are really lovely.
Growing up, my family’s backyard tree was a weeping willow. (Are there willows that don’t weep? Remind me to look that up.) It grew tall and graceful, a welcome place under which to settle with a good book or two. My dad had a fit when he caught neighborhood kids pulling off branches, but that was pretty irresistible. One kid’s frond is another kids’ whip.
The willow lived about as long as my time at that house, succumbing to a kind of tree cancer when I moved away to college. I’m glad I wasn’t there when it was sawed down. Mom and Dad replaced it with an ash, which grew reliably and stands to this day behind our old house in Davenport.
The tree in front is the same one we planted when we moved in. That locust is over 50 by now, its gnarled trunk and sparse branches betraying its age. I’m surprised Dad would choose a tree like that, whose tiny leaves are impossible to rake. Come to think of it, so were the leaves on the willow. Maybe, for once, he planned it that way to avoid a little back-breaking work. (This was a guy who lived for manly chores. He would have been miserable in a condo.)
Although we had no flowering trees, Mom’s parents had a beauty. It was probably a magnolia, but we called it the “tulip tree,” because each perfect bud looked just like a pink and white flower. Once, I picked one up from the ground to plant in a pot of dirt. But it was no bulb, and just sat there, another lesson learned.
When my kids and I moved to our own house in Dubuque, we had mainly arbor vitae in the front yard. Although I’m still not sure if that’s a tree or a bush (or a shrub – and how, exactly, is that different from a bush?), I appreciated them for the privacy they afforded. Then Arbor Day came, and Allison and Daniel brought baby trees home from school. Sweet little seedlings, we planted the baby pine in the side yard, baby maple in back. They grew and grew, at least until we moved and new people took over. Now there’s hardly a tree or bush left, and we look away and shake our heads any time we have to drive by.
My love of trees began early. I’ve reminisced already here about a tree from my childhood that wasn’t even alive. Stripped of leaves, bleached by the sun, it lay on its side, a perfect place for two 6-year-old girls to play. We named it The Dragon, and loved it well. I’m glad I took pictures before it was hauled away, along with scores of living trees, for yet another subdivision. It’s a wonder they didn’t name it Arbor Acres.
Other trees grew in faraway places, but I saw them for weeks at a time each year. The grounds of Camp Conestoga were loaded with trees. How do you camp in the woods without them? To us little Girl Scouts, it felt like an enchanted forest. Don’t get me started on the GSA of Eastern Iowa’s plan to sell their camps. Do girls really “prefer” playing inside on computers? Maybe they need to be taught the joys of the outdoors, not having grown up the way my generation did, playing outside until dark. How will they learn, without campfires and marshmallow roasts, to be caretakers of the wilderness?
Trees are essential. They provide shade and oxygen and places for birds to nest. Even when we travel, we look at trees; I’ll never forget the magnificent alley of live oaks, canopied with Spanish moss, that my husband and I drove under on our way to a Charleston plantation. I felt like we were approaching Tara, and could only wonder how such beauty could adorn places of such cruelty.
When I decided to study for my MFA in poetry, I was beyond lucky with the place I chose. I picked Nebraska for its proximity, as well as its program and faculty, never dreaming how tree-centric its location would be. For ten days each semester, five semesters in all, students and faculty lived at the Lied Lodge, a gobstoppingly gorgeous residence in Nebraska City. The lodge was crafted of trees, even in our rooms. (I wrote a haiku about running into a tree trunk in the night.) Next door was Arbor Day Farm, “the home of Arbor Day,” filled with paths through woods and tree houses 50 feet in the sky. Talk about inspiration.
Now I live in a house with a crab apple tree in back, an ungainly thing in winter that bursts into outrageous bloom in the spring. Two years ago, though, nothing happened, and I was beside myself. Is this what climate change is bringing? Flowering trees that just sulk and refuse to perform? I wouldn’t be surprised. Last year, thank goodness, it was back, wearing its pink and white dress like a princess, prompting a neighbor to post its photo on his Facebook page, captioned “The view from my deck.”
It was good to be reminded that I don’t own that tree. It belongs to the whole neighborhood, a shared thing of beauty, yes, but a shared responsibility as well. “A tree that looks at God all day, / and lifts its leafy arms to pray.” Who can answer its prayers? I’ve got news for you. It’s up to you and me.