By Karen Wills
Climate change thrusts us into a heightened awareness of nature. Oceans, lakes, meadows and trees are the living matrix of which we are a part. Trees in particular have figured in much fiction and nonfiction of late. Of course, poets have long written about and concerned themselves with trees. American poet Robinson Jeffers planted about 2,000 seedlings on his sea cliff property near Carmel, California in the first half of the 1900s.
There is a kinship of us humans to trees. Tree deprivation became as real for me when we lived on the Alaskan tundra as it was for settlers living on the virgin prairies of America. I loved the big, empty tundra with its miles of tiny wild cotton, but trees have always meant shelter, the promise of something to lean against, and shade in the glare of summer. I missed them.
In a recent blog on my website I quoted from Joanna L. Stratton’s, Pioneer Women, which tells of a woman whose husband took her along on a journey to bring home wood. She’d not seen a tree for two years. “…when they arrived at Little River, she put her arms around a tree and hugged it until she was hysterical.”
That reminded me of when we lived on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. We explored the countryside, often peering into abandoned settlers’ houses. One was a stone cottage with a small grotto beside it sheltered by trees. The woman who pioneered there had walked nearly ½ mile each way every day carrying buckets of water to keep her seedlings growing. They flourished. She is gone, but her trees remain, providing homes for birds, being natural wind instruments, and soothing the prairie with their sighing leaves and branches.
An insightful novel about those who plant, nurture, and preserve not just trees, but whole forests, is The Overstory by Richard Powers–winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. One of its most interesting characters is a Vietnam veteran who finds his purpose in life replanting clear-cut, logged-out areas for a living. But he learns that replanting rows of trees earns his corporate employer permission to clear cut more and more forests at a greater profit. That knowledge drives the veteran to desperate, reckless acts.
Another character in The Overstory is Patricia Westerford who devotes her academic and personal life to the study of forests. According to Patricia, everything that happens in nature happens for a purpose. “The environment is alive—a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other.” She also concludes, “We’ve been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been homo sapiens.”
To return to Jeffers, in his poem “Ghost” he imagines himself as a spirit revisiting the new owner of his former property. He has the following exchange with the startled man:
“I see you have played hell
With the trees that I planted.” “There has to be room for people,” he
answers. “My God,” he says, “That still!”
This Arbor Day, enjoy the forests if you can, plant a tree if you’re able, and take a deep breath. Feel your connection to the earth of which you are still a part.