Thursday, July 18, 2019


I never met a tree I didn’t like. Some of my best friends…..But puuulesse don’t tell me they talk or are crafty or curious. They don’t vote or bully or start wars or slip on banana peels. Leave those follies to us. Trees, like all genus and species, do their best to survive. They don’t act with volition. When a tree bends towards the light it isn’t because he has a crush on the sun or wants to speak his mind. It’s called heliotropism.

Richard Powers’ new book, The Overstory, reveals the highly complex life of trees, at their roots and trunks and leaves. He writes of the ways they “communicate”. It’s called an ecosystem and it’s a matter of life and death to us all. My problem is the anthropomorphism. He ascribes human attributes to the arboretum not unlike Walt Disney.

When I was a street urchin in New York we called a sycamore, second base, as it stood majestically in the middle of the empty lot. That would have been in the summer. By October it was the goal line. I went fishing once, broke off a twig. Got myself a nickel from the sewer.

Trees were for climbing if they had ample elbows. There was a large one in the backyard of our apartment building whose branch looped over the shed of a candy store where deposit bottle were stored. My brother wanted to see if he could swipe a few. He managed to climb halfway up but lost his grip at about twenty feet. Was that a snickering I heard from the tree when he fell and broke his ankle? No, I don’t think so.

When I first starting writing poetry the naturalist-poet Gary Snyder advised me to first know the names of trees. We were at a ten-day poetry conference at Port Townsend, Washington. It brought home to me the obvious truth that I was a big city guy with very little to say about the natural world. I didn’t know bear shit from dog shit, a swallow from a sparrow or an elm from a maple. The advice couldn’t hurt but another piece of wise counsel is to write what you know. And what I knew was my ignorance with enough to fill volumes.

Of course trees don’t know their own names. Just as birds wouldn’t recognize themselves if they saw their painting in an Audubon book on the coffee table. But they all deserve the respect of differentiation and we owe them their due. So now I know not to call it a spruce when it’s a Douglas fir. I have learned when to expect our coral tree to burst with red candles or the jacaranda to purple the prose of my life.

The poet Howard Nemerov enters the Language of Trees to demonstrate the dialectic between theory and experience, between nomenclature and the actual. In his poem he throws a glossary of names at the reader to describe the shape of leaves or texture of bark. It all comes out of books which are, of course, the yield of trees. Yet the chaos of experience is something else. Names tell us little about their secret life.

Slowly I am learning to love certain trees. Must I love all of them? Even those anorexic palms yearning to become telephone poles? Some trees seem not to do a very good job at treeness while others grow high and wide with a crop of leaves serving as canopies shading the street. I could spend quality time communing with the reptilian roots of a ficus or the peeling bark of a eucalyptus.  Thank you, guys, don't be modest.

As for poetry there’s no need to assign an emotional life to the forest. I’ll turn to Robert Frost’s Birches where one can do worse than become a swinger of its branches. Where a boy bent them almost to the ground discovering when it’s too soon to launch himself into the world. Where he ascends to the top and back down again knowing that Earth is the best place for love. He knows of no place better.

Too bad Richard Powers left out the two words, as if. As if they could warn us. As if they were patient or wise. His novel also fails, for me, because it is written in the service of an idea, a cause. To this extent it becomes a veiled diatribe, however persuasive. A work of fiction does not work as a mission.

I know I’m running into trouble with these subversive thoughts. Let us honor the woods, say I. They did well before we came. It was once possible for a squirrel to hitch a ride on treetops from ocean to ocean. Now Elm St. is disappearing due to big box stores along with elm trees, victim of a fungus blight. We have not done well as custodians of the botanical world. Plant life doesn’t need to adapt our sensory apparatus to be deemed worthy.  


  1. In 1992 I moved from Los Angeles to a suburb of Portland, Oregon. At the time, there were two houses occupying the front third of a three acre parcel, the back two thirds being covered with with a stand of Douglas Fir trees 50-100 years old ... not old growth but still mature. To my then three year old, it was like having fairy land in our backyard and we spent many an afternoon playing make believe in it. One day, we came home to find they had all been bull dozed down ... although not an audible scream ... I swear I heard, or at least felt something coming from them. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I have always been a bit of a skeptic, but since that day, I have regarded the trees around me differently.

  2. My guess is that scream was your silent anguish.