We have a fraught relationship with trees. To mask our utter dependence on the green world and to justify taking whatever we desire from the planet, we have stripped even the possibility of consciousness from other life forms, woody ones in particular. We name them resources, so that the value of trees is determined only relative to ourselves, usually proportional to the profit that we will extract when we kill them.
But sometimes we value living trees.
Arbor Day is a day to value and salute living trees. Admittedly, the history of Arbor Day is somewhat tainted with white privilege and a general air of cluelessness. But the Arbor Day Foundation is working hard to refashion this day into something we all can celebrate and participate in, a day of planting, a day to ameliorate some of our past destruction and to propagate trees for the future.
While most holidays celebrate something that has already happened and is worth remembering, Arbor Day represents a hope for the future. The simple act of planting a tree represents a belief that the tree will grow to provide us with clean air and water, cooling shade, habitat for wildlife, healthier communities, and endless natural beauty — all for a better tomorrow. (Arbor Day Foundation)
I wholly support planting trees wherever you live — natives, fruit-bearing, nut-bearing — on this day and every other. In fact, I tend to do this, sometimes even buying saplings from the Arbor Day folks and planting them on property that I don’t own, rather like Johnny Appleseed, but with more of a penchant for oaks, maples and walnuts.
One of the best books I’ve ever encountered delves deep into the world of trees and our relationship to them. In The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (2018, Penguin Books), David George Haskell chooses a dozen trees around the world and spends years with each. In Haskell’s lyrical descriptions, these dozen trees become individuals with unique personality traits, but they also stand as representatives of species, of ecosystems, of place. These trees map our lives and mark our story. They are protagonists in a narrative of climatological and biospheric destruction as well as tales of survival and even regeneration.
Haskell employs metaphor and philosophical musing throughout his writing, yet he deftly blends these, our ideas about the world, with solid science, what we physically know about the world, all written in an accessible style that never feels pedantic or preachy. A cottonwood in Denver seems to be having a grand adventure with neighborhood restoration, beaver-style. A sabal palm on St. Catherines Island, Georgia, is the center of an epic existential tragedy that includes turtles, dunes, and humans among many other beings. These are thrilling stories, beautifully written and lavishly detailed.
This is one of those books that I find impossible to review because I would spend pages on the project, quoting whole paragraphs trying to capture what is the essence and yet never doing it justice — because there is so much essential in here. It is better if I just encourage you to read for yourself. If you buy the book — and it is certainly worth it for the value of re-reading — I suspect your copy will be just as dog-eared as my own. In any case, go find a copy on this Arbor Day and read it as a wonderful bedtime story. You will see trees as they are, not as we think they are, maybe for the first time.
And now here is Day 29 of National Poetry Month, a perhaps not particularly woody write, but one that feels right to me today.
Inspired by the book Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.
facing time stratigraphy of possibility made potent layered being stone memory fragments of whirling paths crossed and again we are and that is magnificent miracle for none might have been yet… here we are however we are time in time most wondrous essence distilled from vital tragedy the choice that cuts is ours to make such is life such is time such is this mysterious seed of being earthly
From the Book Cellar
A small selection of picture books for Arbor Day:
Arbor Day Square by Kathryn O. Galbraith, illustrated by Cyd Moore (2010, Peachtree).
A Tree Is Nice by Janice May Udry, illustrated by Marc Simont, a Caldecott Medal winner (1956, HarperCollins Children’s Books).
The Busy Tree by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Lisa Falkenstern (2009, Marshall Cavendish Children).
©Elizabeth Anker 2022