Introduction to Poems About Trees

The trees still in the world and the experience of living among trees recorded in poetry both go back to almost the same ancient time. The oldest tree is the bristlecone pine that grows in sparse groves on slopes high (10,000-11,000 feet) in the White Mountains of California and Nevada. For years Methuselah was known as the single oldest tree, being over 4,800 years of age, but recently a tree living near it was found to have lived longer than 5,000 years. Both these bristlecone pines then were beginning to establish themselves in the hard dolomite rock of the mountains when the first ballads of Gilgamesh were being composed and sung in Mesopotamia. In the Standard Version of the Gilgamesh epic, set down two thousand years later, when Methuselah and its neighbor were still five hundred years shy of middle age, the first adventure that Gilgamesh and Enkidu, his friend and companion, undertake is to travel a long way to the vast Cedar Forest in what is now Syria. Their aim is to kill Huwawa, the Guardian of the Forest, who was appointed to the office by the gods who dwell in the trees, cut down the cedars, and float them back to be milled in their city. Even so, the Babylonian poet or poets who wrote the epic were aware of what was being lost: “Beautiful is the forest; green upon green the cedars; fragrant the air with the fragrance of the cedar trees.” Much of what we have experienced and are still experiencing with trees, their beauty, their fragrance, their sustaining clean air, and their disappearance under the axe, is depicted in this part of the ancient poem.

I’ve included no passage from Gilgamesh in this book, but I have chosen two passages from the Odyssey, because at several points trees play a crucial role in that epic. Two instances: the recognition scenes at the end depend on trees. Odysseus convinces Penelope that he is in fact her husband by describing how he constructed their bed from an olive tree growing in the middle of their bedroom, and to his aged father, who is tending his orchard when Odysseus comes to find him, he proves his identity by recalling how as a boy he begged his father to plant an orchard for him: “ you named them one by one. You gave me thirteen pear, ten apple trees and forty figs.” We feel Odysseus’s lifelong excitement at being among the family fruit trees, a fact never commented on, as far as I know, in discussions of the guileful hero.

The tree-loving side of the character comes across best in a passage in Book 6, when, emerging from the double olive thicket where he has spent the night, Odysseus encounters Nausicaäa, the princess of the island. He needs her help, and at first his speech expresses that need, but then he is swept away by her beauty, telling her that he has never before seen such beauty, unless it was

……………………………in Delos, beside Apollo’s altar,
the young slip of a palm-tree springing into the light…
That vision! Just as I stood there gazing, rapt, for hours…
no shaft like that had ever risen up from the earth—

The reader may feel as I do that this is an extraordinary moment in the history of poetry, and one that uncannily looks ahead to moments of visionary gladness in Anglo-American poetry since Wordsworth. Indeed, the first section of this anthology, which I’ve called “Gladness,” contains many poems that seem to have been inspired, unlikely as that is, by the passage I’ve just quote from the Odyssey. The poems are by Wordsworth, Edward Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, two poetic prose pieces by Emerson and Thoreau, Yves Bonnefoy, and others. James Dickey speaks of his being “in holy alliance” with a tree that “leaps up on wings that could save me from death.” It was my first desire in making this book to present passages such as this one to demonstrate that animism, the heart of which was a reverence, at times ecstatic, for the “holy alliance” between humans and trees, lives on in many modern and contemporary poets.

Surely it is the feeling of spiritual fellowship with trees, and sometimes, as in Stanley Plumly’s “Panegyric for the Plane Tree Fallen on Fifth Avenue,” one tree, that accounts for the our heartache at their loss. Trees perish from many causes—floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning, ice-storms, storms of lashing wind and driving rain, insect infestation, disease. In Watertown, Massachusetts, we lost the hundred-year-old birch tree that grew just outside our house because we weren’t there to shake the branches during a heavy ice-storm. When we arrived home we found that the trunk of the tree had been split in two and the crown lay on the grass. I felt remiss, and hurt.

But the poets in “Gladness Gone” write of feeling worse than hurt when trees they love are deliberately, suddenly felled. Hopkins was for some time inconsolable after he discovered one day that the double row of aspens on the river bank, trees he had been in the habit of walking to see since his arrival at Oxford, had all been felled, “everyone,” in order to make brake shoes for the Great Western Railway. The loss was irremediable, but that day he wrote “Binsey Poplars.” Similarly, Thoreau, in Walden, decried the cutting down for firewood of the trees along the shore of the lake. “How can you expect the birds to sin when their groves are cut down?” Thoreau’s Journal and books are full of precise observation of trees, especially pines—“Nothing stands up more free from blame in this world than a pine tree”—and lamentation at the demonic, as he termed it, leveling of the forests in New England during his lifetime.

Thoreau on occasion surprised the people of Concord with his knowledge of trees, in particular his ability to date precisely the age of fallen or felled trees and to explain how trees propagate. Since then we have acquired much scientific insight into and data and theories about trees. Recent studies suggest that tree growth is correlated with the skies, that trees are like antennas, transmitting earth energy and taking in energy in the form of radiation from even distant stars. Probably this view would not have surprised our ancestors who worshipped goddesses in groves of old growth trees. It doesn’t surprise Gary Snyder, who writes of the pine, “Cybele’s tree, sacred in groves.”

The majority of the poems in this book are less ecstatic than Homer and Dickey, less downcast than Hopkins and Thoreau, more formal or more familial or longer or wittier or downright more mysterious. And of course they are unscientific. Had I had more space, I could easily have added to the number of poems, but I am confident that all the poems here give pleasure in one way or another and invite rereading. We live among trees, and if we are to have a future we must be planters and keepers of trees.

Harry Thomas

Harry Thomas has edited two books for Penguin UK, Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy and Montale in English, has done two books for UnGyve Press, Some Complicity and The Truth of Two: Selected Translations, and has two books coming out this year, Poems about Trees, an anthology, and The Occasional Demon, 36 Poems of Primo Levi, translated with Marco Sonzogni.

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Author: Harry Thomas

Harry Thomas has edited two books for Penguin UK, Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy and Montale in English, has done two books for UnGyve Press, Some Complicity and The Truth of Two: Selected Translations, and has two books coming out this year, Poems about Trees, an anthology, and The Occasional Demon, 36 Poems of Primo Levi, translated with Marco Sonzogni.