They were there at the beginning, trees in literature, centuries before humans had the idea of putting literature on (the pulped, bleached, and pressed remains of) trees. The Tree of Jiva and Atman in Vedic scripture, the Tree of Life in the Hebrew Bible, the withered poplars of the I Ching. Trees are bigger than us and they usually outlive us—no wonder they loom large in our imagination.
Recently, the editors of Orion selected the best works about trees from our archive for a new anthology, Old Growth. To celebrate its publication, we asked our contributors and several of Orion’s editors to name their favorite tree from a book or poem. The results were eye-opening: as expected, Robert Frost made several appearances, but could anyone have guessed that two different marriages would spring from a dramatic reading of “Birches”? Some of the trees invoke the solemness of death: the mysterious conifer in Yusef’s Komunyakaa’s “Tree Ghost” and the potted orange tree in Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, the leaves on its bare branches replaced with post-it notes. Others thrum with life: the Ailanthus altissima in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the banyan in Wu Ming-yi’s The Stolen Bicycle, a monster that could hold a whole company of soldiers in its branches and roots and still keep growing.
At first we wanted to rank the trees, or pit them head-to-head, March Madness–style, to see which one came out on top. Would Whitman’s hickory defeat Yeats’s chestnut? In the battle of the oaks, who would reign supreme: Calvino or Kunitz? But the trees invoked here, and the works of literature in which they are found, resist such a reductive treatment. Better to let each one stand on its own, “as diverse in scope as trees are in leaf,” as Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her introduction to Old Growth. Eighteen is insufficient to cover a subject as rich as “trees in literature”—but no number would ever be enough.
1. Italo Calvino’s Oak in The Baron of the Trees
Cosimo Piovasco de Rondó is the protagonist of The Baron in the Trees. At age twelve this heir to the ancient Dukedom of Ombrosa resists his father’s insistence that he eat a plateful of snails. The boy leaves the table, leaves home, and climbs the knobby old holm oak that stands in the park outside the window. He says he will never come down. And indeed he does not. He lives and dies in the trees, never again touching down on solid ground. He climbs from oak to elm to carob to mulberry to lemon to olive, passes gracefully branch to branch. He invents life anew, distancing himself from the grudge he holds against his family and society. The trees lift him across property and class lines. He is no misanthrope. He simply prefers the vantage over human life that he gains from the tree tops. He proposes “An Ideal State in the Trees.” He wins the respect of the great philosophers and scientists of Europe. He hunts, fishes, fights forest fires, takes lovers, marries, forges friendships with the earthbound—all in all a rich life removed from the obsessions with stature and obedience that troubled his childhood. Yes, Cosimo is the hero of the narrative, yet it is the trees that make it possible for him to reinvent human life. This novel is one beautiful and transporting reading experience that places trees at the center of what it might mean to be alive.
Certainly the continual contact with the barks of trees, his eyes trained, to the movement of a feather, a hair, a scale, to the range of colors of his world, and then the various greens circulating though the veins of leaves like blood from another world, all those forms of life so far removed from the human as the stem of a plant, the beak of a thrush, the gill of a fish, those borders of the wild into which he was so deeply urged—all might have molded his mind, made him lose every semblance of man. But, no. matter how many new qualities he acquired from his closeness with plants and his struggles with animals, his place—it always seemed to me—was clearly with us.
2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lime in “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison”
I first encountered “This Lime-tree Bower my Prison” in Herman Asarnow’s freshman year Romantic poetry seminar. As Herman recited the poem, he projected images of Nether Stowey’s grounds, lime trees, and bowers. We talked about times in our young, mostly healthy lives, when we’d watched our friends move on and live their lives while we were stuck in place, even in places as beautiful as Coleridge’s lime tree. We talked about what it was like to know others are enjoying what we could not, how difficult it is to enjoy experiences by proxy, if such enjoyment is even possible, and how nature might soothe the fiercest FOMO. We talked about the stupid accidents that layed us up, like Sara dropping a skillet of boiling milk on Coleridge’s foot, causing the injury that kept him stuck in the bower, and how being stuck can force a stillness and an opportunity for the mind to wander further abroad than we might on foot.
I’ve often thought of this poem over the last twenty years, but especially during the first months after childbirth, while “stuck” on the sofa nursing an infant and then being too tired or too scared to move, risking their fragile sleep. Nursing a baby can provoke a maddening FOMO of the most basic adult pleasures. I missed, desperately, making my own cup of tea, just the way I like it, with both of my hands free (and with scalding milk!) and envied my husband’s free and careless movement throughout the house. At the same time, I experienced a great and irreplaceable intimacy while rooted in place, both with this new life in my lap and within my own quieter thoughts, perhaps a more internal experience of how “well to be bereft of promis’d good”—I may be missing some of life’s basic pleasures, including a full night’s sleep, but I gain more in the stillness than I lose. I’m certain Coleridge was rarely the parent awake with a newborn, unless a full moon captured his attention. And I never nursed a baby in a lime tree bower (or any bower that I can remember). But we share the pleasure of forced stillness and solitude, even as we long to pull up our roots and join the world’s excitement again.
3. Robert Frost’s Maple in “Maple”
In Robert Frost’s poem “Maple” a mother names her newborn daughter Maple, then dies. Maple’s father doesn’t know “what she wanted it to mean.” Frost’s similes rarely startle, but the one that forms the premise of this poem does. Nominally coupled to a tree, Maple’s lifetime task is to figure out how. With no maples near her childhood home, no passed-down memories of her mother communing with glades, and no clues in the word “maple” itself, whose roots (ha!) are etymologically obscure, Maple searches haphazardly. A maple tree doesn’t appear for scrutiny until the very end of Frost’s long narrative poem, when a maple in autumn stands “alone with smooth arms lifted up, / And every leaf of foliage she’d worn / Laid scarlet and pale pink about her feet.” See how the tree is a “she” who has just tossed off her red and pink leafy negligee? It’s cringy, and rather than identifying with her namesake tree’s striptease, Maple covers her eyes with her hands. Isn’t this what you wanted? the tree magnificently dares, though only in my imagination, where I ventriloquize. Interpretation can be a mirror, an echo, instant gratification for the reader who believes that a tree says Read me, which no maple has ever said to anyone.
4. Robert Frost’s Birch in “Birches”
I grew up in Frost country—Vermont’s old farmhouses, old cellar holes, old apple trees—and though there wasn’t a lot of poetry in my house, we had a slim volume called You Come Too: Favorite Poems for Young Readers on the living room bookshelf. My great grandmother Olive, a biologist and ornithologist and weaver, had gifted the book of Frost’s poems to my dad on his twelfth birthday, and my grown dad, a farmer and sugar maker and carpenter, still knew every line. His favorite poem was “Birches,” and when we walked in the woods (something we often did, for work and for pleasure) and came across a birch bent by a storm he would stop and smile and say, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
Poetry was mysterious to me, and so I hunted it like we hunt most mysteries, following it through classrooms and bookstores and libraries. Alternatively the woods were familiar to me, were my native tongue, and so I didn’t read much Robert Frost in my hunting. He seemed too much like the language of my youth, too colloquial. But now I am middle-aged, the age my father was when we walked in the woods together, the exact age Frost was when he published the collection Mountain Interval, in which “Birches” first appeared. This year on my daughter’s twelfth birthday my dad gifted her a copy of that same book his grandmother gifted him sixty years ago, and read aloud from it outdoors around a fire. “When I see birches bend to left and right/Across the lines of straighter darker trees,/I like to think some boy’s been swinging them,” he read, his sentimental eyes misting.
That night I returned to Frost, and discovered his poetry to be much stranger and more mystical than I had remembered. I reread “Birches” and my skin tingled everywhere. I have lived through many ice storms on this hillside and watched many birches bend. I know how they are, like us, “dragged to the withered bracken with the load.” And when Frost at my age writes: “When I’m weary of considerations,/ And life is too much like a pathless wood…I’d like to get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over,” I know that feeling too. I have grown into the poem the way the birches on this hillside where I have lived most of my life, and where my father has lived most of his life before me, have grown older and bent, and then fallen, new patches sprouting in their wake. I would like all of us to have a chance to begin over. “Earth’s the right place for love:/I don’t know where it’s likely to go better,” Frost writes, and I agree, a lump in my throat, the words resonating with new meaning in the light of our warming seasons and more frequent storms. Poetry and trees our witnesses. And time.
Among the trees I’ve met first in a book, and only later in a forest, my favorite is the paper birch, also known as white birch or canoe birch. As a writer, I’m partial to paper, which you can hear in its Latin species name, Betula papyrifera. Common in the woods of New England, but rare south of the Great Lakes where I grew up, this is the tree Robert Frost celebrated in his poem “Birches,” which I read for the first time in an English class during the spring of my junior year in high school. The following summer I memorized all fifty-nine lines of “Birches,” in hopes of impressing a girl at science camp by reciting it to her on an evening walk. The girl was fifteen, supersmart, and cute to boot; I was sixteen, and dazzled by her. On a night lit by fireflies, we took our walk, and I poured rather more romance into the recitation than Frost had put into the poem, although he did say, “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better,” which I took as encouragement for courtship. The girl smiled at my theatrics, but didn’t laugh. Five years later, after graduating from different colleges, we got married. That’s the chief source of my affection for paper birches. Midway through my seventies, I’ve lost a few lines from the poem, but I haven’t lost the girl, now a grandmother, who dazzles me still.
“Birches’” was my mother and father’s favorite poem, and it’s one of my favorites, too. Briefly, when they were dating, my father read the poem aloud to her, with great emotion, and then told her he was an expert at swinging birches himself. In fact, he would show her. They were in the woods at the time, birch trees all around. While she marveled at his lithe athletic skill, he climbed a tall birch tree all the way to the tippy top, and said to her, “Watch this,” and swung himself out into space … and hung there, far from the ground, his feet kicking around. The top of the tree had nodded over a bit, but it didn’t carry him anywhere near the ground. He hung there for a while, muttering, “Damn, damn,” while my mother panicked. Finally he let go and fell to the ground. Sprained his ankle. But he totally endeared himself to my mother with this fiasco. I would like to think that that stubborn, unbendable birch tree contributed to my existence in the world. The tree refused the poetry of Robert Frost.
5. Gabriel García Márquez’s Chestnut in One Hundred Years of Solitude
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the family patriarch of the novel, José Arcadio Buendía, lives his early life as a charismatic, forceful, and always-curious visionary in the town of Macondo. His eclectic pursuits, however, ultimately drive him mad, and at the end of his life, for his own good and for the good of the town, he is tied to a chestnut tree in the backyard of the Buendía house, thereafter speaking only Latin, which nobody except the priest can understand. In this way, he is also euphemistically tied to the family tree, which may be the bigger point to be taken from the surprising event.
The tying up of José Arcadio is reminiscent of the stories wherein a sailor or a captain might be tied to the mast of a ship in a storm to keep from being swept overboard. In the case of José Arcadio, however, rather than keeping him safe, he is tied to the chestnut tree to keep the town safe.
In the end, tying the patriarch of the family—and of the town—to the chestnut tree places him squarely in one sure place for everyone to see and for him to stand. If they could not understand his wandering and ranting, they could understand him centered in this way. The tree, finally, may be bigger than he is, but they are one: both rooted in a way that reminds everyone, including the reader, that one hundred years is just one season, one man under one tree.
6. Ross Gay’s Peach in “The Opening”
Few are the poems in Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude that do not pause to exalt one tree or another. Here we meet the often-maligned mulberry (“which some numbskulls call a weed,”) the Philadelphia fig slicking the sidewalk, the lush dogwood in spring regalia, its myriad flowers “like a congregation,” and the plum tree planted with the ashes of his father, now “breast-stroking into the xylem,” and, and . . . .
But it’s the big beautiful peach tree in the long poem “The Opening” I so often return to. Indeed, I’ve lost track of how many times I have read the poem, the process now feels akin to meditation, a joyful dirge. For the poem, the book, and the tree are both ode and elegy. At first, Gay carefully leads us through the immobilizing sadness he experienced after his father’s death, roaring inside with “the sounds of not weeping, the sounds / of sadness turned back,” unable to witness his mother’s deep grief. But in spring, the peach tree beckons. Planted years ago as “a spindly prayer with a tangle of roots so delicate, / so wild, I took ten minutes to feather them apart // before spreading them in the hole like a lightning storm / in one of those images of the brain”—it must now be pruned so the promised fruit will not rot. So he sharpens the tools, tenderly cleans the blades, and climbs in, “crawling through the branches / as though through a beloved’s ribs.” We mourn, a little, with each lopped branch. He stops only when the tree is open enough for birds to fly through (and they do), granting him, at last, the ability to look up. To try to see and hear.
7. Seamus Heaney’s Alder in “Sweeney Astray”
The alder is my darling,
all thornless in the gap,
some milk of human kindness
coursing in its sap.
“Sweeney Astray,” translated by Heaney in 1983, is a medieval Irish poem that tells the story of Suibhne mac Colmáin, king of what was called Dál nAraidi, who is cursed by a saint, and, as a result, goes insane, or seems to, and wanders the Irish landscape. (An alternative title is “Mad Sweeney.”) Sweeney wanders as a kind of bird, and, as I read the poem, he comes to know each tree in which he briefly alights, seeing its attributes as if it were a neighbor or a comrade, or at least another being with various traits and demeanors. The alder is a tree I see in the country and in the city, and when the wind is right, I always see it as pleased to see me, or at least not so displeased, like a friend.
8. Patricia Highsmith’s Trees from the Tom Ripley Series
I hope it’s not cheating to pick five novels, but each volume in Patricia Highsmith’s series about the foppish psychopath Tom Ripley bleeds into one another, and like the trees that everyone here is writing about, it’s hard to imagine any of them on their own. The Ripley novels are fueled by a constant overflow of anxiety, one that’s alternately soothed or provoked by the sight of trees in whatever scenic corner of central Europe they take us to; as someone who’s remained on the run for his entire adult life, Tom is equally drawn to and repulsed by the thought of a slow, still creature taking root and flourishing.
There’s the moment that starts it all, on Italy’s southern coast, when Tom, overcome by the shame of his modest social stature, decides to kill his high-class acquaintance Dickie Greenleaf, whose very name evokes the image of a money tree. Out on a little boat, Tom swings an oar at Dickie, feeling “as if the oar were an ax and Dickie’s neck a tree.” The tree is an embodiment of life itself, one that Tom encounters again in the series’ second book, when the tortured artist Bernard Tufts throws himself off a cliff; following from several paces back, Tom realizes what Bernard has done on hearing “a faint crackling of branches, which soon stopped.”
Trees keep a nice perch in Tom’s subconscious throughout the series. When flirting with houseguests, he’s delighted to announce, “I’ve thought of a wonderful way to start a forest fire.” (He never does.) When contemplating a friend’s claim to innocence, his barometer is moved by their presence: “Was it because the woods were so beautiful … that he didn’t want to believe the boy had killed anyone?” And in the final novel, there’s a moment of crisis when “he felt like hurling his fist against something, a tree trunk, anything.” They are always there before him, flaunting their endurance and grace.
But of course, despite his many outbursts, those are the qualities that sustain Tom’s love for the life he’s desperately created for himself, something he’s reminded of every time he sees them “lean[ing] toward his home, protectively.” “As Tom approached the big tree opposite Belle Ombre, a tree whose branches leaned a little over the road, his spirits rose. What was there to worry about?” A lot, it turns—the new neighbors are trying to fish the corpse of one of Tom’s victims out of a river down the road—but there is a peace to be found under the arms of a tree, and even a psychopath can’t always deny that.
9. Yusef Komunyakaa’s Conifer from “Tree Ghost”
The speaker in Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Tree Ghost” says “Hunger always speaks / the same language,” and it’s always reminded me of the way trees and humans engage with each other and the world with unspoken, shared phonetics. The languages might be mycelium in the soil or gestures from the body, but the conversation all comes back to the conifer in the poem. The owl in the poem, like the memories we carry, takes flight thanks to the tree’s magnanimousness. I imagine that Komunyakaa wrote this poem in a notebook, full of the scratching and rustling of his living. So from the poet to the hungry page to the hungrier heart: arboreal generosity again, full of hunger that couldn’t be spoken without the tree’s particular and capacious atriums.
10. Stanley Kunitz’s Oak in “The Testing Tree”
My tree is the oak (probably red) from Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “The Testing Tree.”
Called “tyrant and target,/Jehovah of acorns/ watchtower of the thunders,/ that locked King Philip’s War/ in its annulated core/under the cut of my name”—the tree may be an embodiment of Kunitz lost father—hence the tyrant part. Then, in those additional words, Kunitz invokes the tree’s pedigree, establishing it as a God-tall witness to history, the Goliath at which the poem’s fierce-eloquent kid hucks rocks. That’s the target part.
But as anyone with a yard full of pebbly nuts and puzzle-piece leaves knows—oaks aren’t just trees, they parent an ecosystem. Ecologist Douglas Tallamy argues they enable “fascinating interactions” between a spectrum of beings, (siblings?), some of which Kunitz names: the nearby stickseed, jewelweed, deer print, and fox scat. And yet the poem’s boy takes aim (Geology against Dendrology)—pitching three stones toward heartwood. He names each cast for things also fostered by the oak: “for love, for poetry and for eternal life.”
11. Valeria Luiselli’s Orange in Faces in the Crowd
Valeria Luiselli’s debut novel, Faces in the Crowd or Los Ingrávidos (The Weightless) in the Spanish original, is an ambitious, multilayered, and challenging read, told in multiple voices, spanning a hundred years, and located in three cities. Narrations flow together and time overlaps and bends. There is a novel within a novel within a novel, each set inside the other like matryoshka dolls. Characters move between these worlds, the living mingling with the dead.
After settling into the flow of this braided book, I was stopped by a tree. An orange tree in a pot, dead when the sub-novel’s narrator finds it. This narrator belongs to the story that a mother in contemporary Mexico City is writing about her past; her younger self is a translator living in New York City and obsessed with the poet Gilberto Owen, who lived in her neighborhood during the Harlem Renaissance. When she discovers his address, she climbs up to his roof and waits, reading his poems and letters, hoping for a sign. The tree she finds up there turns out to be something he once described in his writing. She brings it home to her writing desk and pins notes on it that she’s written about Owen. When the branches become full of notes, she would “gather them up as they fell and write the story of Owen’s life in that same order,” forming “a horizontal novel, told vertically.”
Now in Mexico City, the notes are stuck to the wall. The novel she inhabits, the novel she writes, and the novel her narrator writes are all structured as short paragraphs that skip from past to present and place to place, feeling like stolen moments. She tells her son she’s writing a ghost story.
The orange tree, however, feels more alive than dead as I imagine its post-its falling to the young woman’s desk. It spans a century, stretches both vertically and horizontally, holds up words, divides language among its branches. Between its branches are the spaces where creator and creation meet. “I know I need a structure full of holes,” says the mother, “so that I can always find a place for myself on the page.”
12. Herman Melville’s White Pine in Moby-Dick
Make it Moby Dick for me, an earthy book in spite of all that water. Ahab scrawling the deck with his ivory leg. Men coiling line and coopering barrels, scrubbing the try-works clean. Carpentry and blacksmithing, figuring and wayfinding.
Flip the pages and the book releases a smell of vanilla from the lignin in the pulp. This in the copy I read first, picked up at a book sale for a quarter, margins covered with slanting notes written by a professor I never had. I worked in a movie theater that summer, so I read it for the first time between shows. Even now, despite its length, it always feels episodic to me.
Seven chapters begin “The Pequod Meets”: The Albatross, The Jeroboam, The Rose Bud, The Virgin. (Cries Stubb, “—we’re becalmed. Halloo, here’s grass growing in the boat’s bottom—and by the Lord, the mast there’s budding. This won’t do, boys.”)
Ah, the mast. Here’s our tree, one of three, where Ishmael keeps, he admits, “but sorry guard,” perched high in the crosstrees of the replacement masts, “cut somewhere on the coast of Japan.” The mast-head allows Ishmael to see further, see more. High above the deck, he takes giant steps across the watery part of the world. It makes him dreamy, and that’s dangerous, just as it’s dangerous to drive too long without a rest. Ishmael is fated to be the one who has escaped to tell us, but he doesn’t know that yet, standing a hundred feet above the decks of the Pequod, hoping he won’t find what he’s supposed to hunt.
The ship’s first masts, “lost overboard in a gale,” were probably white pine the likes of which this world won’t see again. Untold millions were cut for the navies of Great Britain and what would become the United States, and millions more for houses and doors, shingles and furniture, railings, banisters, matches. Gone are the forests of white pine so dense people said a squirrel could run across their tops for miles. Gone the thick clouds of pollen that blew out to sea in spring.
Just last week, up in the mountains, I stood at the foot of a second-growth white pine that shaded an old home site. All that’s left of the cabin was the hearth, flat stones split and mortared and laid by hands now gone. The grain of the stone was green and damp with moss. This would have been a good place to live. I wouldn’t mind pitching my tent there myself. The flattish ground springy with duff.
Pollen rained down on sailors like brimstone. Those days are gone. But this is still here and it is good. Here’s my tree, one of three, cut but still somehow alive, anchored in the ongoing present of a book. In some other region of time, Ishmael fulminates and Queequeg whets his harpoon. Flask, butterless, oversees the mending of a split rope. Cries Stubb, “and by the Lord, the mast there’s budding.”
13. Yggdrasil from Norse Mythology
In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is an ash tree, but it is also the entire universe. Its branches reach to heaven and are inhabited by nibbling deer; under its three principal roots lie Hel, Jötunheim (the land of the frost giants) and our Earth. An eagle in the crown and a dragon called Nithhogg at the roots pass ill-tempered messages up and down through a squirrel called Ratatosk.
Yggdrasil’s ash | great evil suffers,
Far more than men do know;
The hart bites its top, | its trunk is rotting,
And Nithhogg gnaws beneath.
[Grímnismál, Stanza 31]
Thus Yggdrasil becomes a tempting metaphor for contemporary environmental writers keen to communicate the ways in which other species create our interwoven, living world—and the ways in which damage to the biological world can be a threat to us all.
I don’t know any other mythos as fixated on decline and death. All the Norse myths lead inexorably to the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok, during which the gods die. It is unsurprising, then, that an environmentalist culture that tends to worship trees and fixate on apocalyptic futures is drawn to this world-spanning ash tree. But it is good to remember that when Ragnarok does come, Yggdrasil quivers and groans, but does not fall.
The sun turns black,
earth sinks in the sea,
The hot stars down
from heaven are whirled
[Voluspo, Stanza 57]
However, just two stanzas later, we find rebirth.
Now do I see
the earth anew
Rise all green
from the waves again
[Voluspo, Stanza 59]
Even in the midst of catastrophe, there is hope. Presumably, Yggdrasil stands to this day, and we all live beneath its boundless roots.
14. Katherine Paterson’s Crabapple in Bridge to Terabithia
The crabapple tree in Katherine Paterson’s Newbury Medal-winning novel Bridge to Terabithia
grows in rural Virginia near a dry gully, an old rope hanging from its main branch. Jess and Leslie, fifth graders and best friends, swing on the rope to enter the woods, where they reign as the king and queen of their imaginary kingdom Terabithia.
Jess and Leslie’s enchanted world has rules, and one of these is that Terabithia can only be entered by swinging on the crabapple tree. It’s the only way to get the magic to work. As a writer, I love this: it is through the children’s grounding in their physical world that entering the world of the imagination becomes possible. Imagination is not an escape from reality. Instead, our imaginations allow us to penetrate the superficial gloss we call reality, in order to reveal what is really real, what is truer-than-true.
When I first read this book as a child, though? I loved the crabapple tree because it was a kid’s beloved tree, and I too had beloved trees and half-believed in magic as I played games in the woods.
15. Betty Smith’s Tree of Heaven in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
In Betty Smith’s 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 11-year-old Francie Nolan sees herself in the tree whose leafy combs shade her third-floor fire escape. “It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement,” Smith writes. “It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts.” Francie’s alter ego is a tree of heaven or Ailanthus altissima, a species imported from China in the 1820s. Initially welcomed as an exotic ornament, Ailanthus—which can grow ten feet in a season, and whose flowers smell like sweaty socks—was soon rejected as a weedy, stinky foreigner. Though banished from wealthier addresses, it hung on in immigrant neighborhoods, shading those who had also arrived from elsewhere. Today, as temperatures rise and the heat gap widens, the tree of heaven’s generous canopy may be a lifesaver.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.
The first time I met a tree was when I read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at eleven or twelve. I grew up in San Diego, California which at that time was essentially a desert. Few trees grew there naturally, and certainly none that were tenacious enough to grow out of cement. I took its metaphor for the toughness and tenacity of ordinary people to heart. My subject became us, the hordes, the masses, the workers, the survivors, the lushly human, who, when looked at individually in poems, became beautiful.
16. Walt Whitman’s Hickory in Specimen Days
It’s 1877. Late summer in Camden, New Jersey. Walt Whitman is still recovering from a stroke that left him partially paralyzed a few years earlier. In a brief journal entry (later to become the prose collection Specimen Days), he writes of his profound gratitude for “another day quite free from mark’d prostration and pain.” His self-prescribed regimen for mending body and soul, is—so him: “Adamic air baths” (an exercise sequence of hiking naked in the sun and resting—also naked—in the shade—all the while not worrying if he’s spotted and maybe even inviting that), deep breathing, and “health pulls”—a kind of intimate wrestling with trees. “I come down here… to pull on that young hickory sapling out there—to sway and yield to its tough-limber upright stem—haply to get into my old sinews some of its elastic fiber and clear sap. For nearly an hour at a time he works with his tree: “I hold on boughs or slender trees caressingly… wrestle with their stalwartness and know the virtue thereof passes from them into me. (Or maybe we interchange—maybe the trees are more aware of it all than I ever thought.)” While he includes many entries on “affiliating with a tree” and long, comforting lists of all the trees (and birds) he’s familiar with, it’s the single, young, beloved, tough-minded, indulgent hickory that stays with me. I call it up often—that deep, grey-brown trunk. I lend it my own certainty of tree responses to wind, palms, breath, seasons, our whims and rituals. I know that hickory. I see it bent and stretched and springing back, resisting and offering. I feel its wet-running sap, and see roots shifting with the effort of holding its upright place, its own intentions. It’s such a simple, unspectacular, weird, image to carry, but I, too, have thanked the “invisible physician” for the “silent, delicious medicine” dosed out by trees.
17. Wu Ming-yi’s Banyan in The Stolen Bicycle
Toward the closing chapters of Taiwanese nature writer Wu Ming-Yi’s novel, The Stolen Bicycle, a banyan tree appears. Its presence in the story is fleeting, seen only in a few pages, from the perspectives of both elephants and humans. But it has been the abiding image I associate with this novel, and was the first tree I thought of when asked to think of a tree from literature. Banyans can grow to enormous scale, spreading aerial roots in so many directions that they seem to swallow whatever lays around them. In the novel, this banyan houses a company of soldiers—likened to a village—who cut from the surrounding leaves and vines to sustain themselves in the depths of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Parts of the tree, Wu writes, “were whacked off, bit by bit and branch by branch, men’s blood, flesh and guts were absorbed into the wood.” But the tree keeps growing. Ultimately, the banyan swallows up pain and violence, but does not redeem them. Instead, it holds a record.
18. William Butler Yeats’s Chestnut in “Among School Children”
A tree that has stayed with me for decades is the chestnut tree in Yeats’s poem, “Among School Children.” As an older man and famous poet and senator, Yeats visits a school and muses on the public and private, youth and beauty, time, and in the final stanza, the chestnut tree appears:
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
The appearance of the tree at this particular moment is startling, and the speaker wonders aloud if the tree can be singled out or reduced to one of its components. Of course it can’t. And because it is “great rooted” and a “blossomer,” the chestnut tree serves as a magnificent image and symbol of being rooted in the physical world and of incorporating change. It provides a crucial transition to the next two, final lines that celebrate life as rhythmical motion:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Old Growth is available for sale at select independent bookstores, as well as at Orion’s website. The book was printed on paper that’s 100 percent % recycled from post-consumer waste, FSC certified, Rainforest Alliance certified, Ancient Forest Friendly, processed without chlorine, made with renewable energy, printed with soy-based ink, and coated with water-based varnish.