The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tree Hugging

Sgt Joyce Kilmer (1918)
A month or so ago, while browsing at a used book store, I came across a two-volume edition of Joyce Kilmer's writings, including his poetry, prose and letters. In excellent condition and offered at a very low price, the set was irresistible ...and so I bought it. As you may know, Kilmer was killed in June 1918 by a sniper's bullet during World War I. In fact, I mentioned Kilmer briefly last September in a post memorializing some of the writers who lost their lives in that horrendous war. Kilmer was a Catholic convert and lived in my home town of Larchmont, NY for a time, so, although dead, he was a local celebrity of sorts. 

Anyway, this morning I finally got around to checking out the two-volume set. When I opened Volume One I turned first to what is certainly Kilmer's most famous poem, "Trees", and was surprised to discover that I still remembered every line. I believe it was Sister Mary Andrew, my seventh-grade teacher at St. Augustine School, who insisted we memorize certain poems, including this one by Kilmer. In a way I suppose this sparked my lifelong appreciation of trees.

"Trees" is one of those poems that was (and likely still is) despised by many of Kilmer's fellow poets but is nevertheless loved by the people. Its brevity, its simplicity in rhyme and meter, and its focus on God's creative touch appeal to all but the most sophisticated and cynical. These same attributes, as Sister Mary Andrew evidently knew, also made it easy to memorize.
I think that I shall never see
A Poem as lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
To me Kilmer's poem always calls to mind the beautiful hymn of praise sung by the three young men in King Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace (see Daniel 3:52-90) in which all of God's Creation is called on to "praise and exalt Him above all forever." 

Although I appreciate trees, I really know very little about them. Indeed, their biology represents one of the many voids in my education. I know only a few basic facts: that maple trees provide us with wonderful syrup for my pancakes and waffles; that deciduous trees caused me to spend many hours raking their leaves when I lived up North; that many cute little creatures (squirrels, birds, etc.) make their homes in trees; that the age of some trees can be calculated by the rings of their trunks. I suppose I know some other stuff about trees, but not much more. I'm somewhat ashamed of my vast tree ignorance particularly since I so enjoy their presence.

I especially like old trees. As my children and grandchildren will tell you, my favorite tree is an old European Weeping Beech tree located on the grounds of the Captain Bangs Hallet House in Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod. (Here's a link to a description: Old Cape Cod Weeping Beech.) For 25 years we lived only a few miles from this wonderful tree and would occasionally stop by to visit when on our way to the nearby frog pond and nature trails. While this tree is still a youngster, probably less than 200 years old, it has a uniqueness and beauty that sets it apart from most other trees. 

I've included some photos (below) taken just two months ago during a recent trip to visit family on Cape Cod. In the first, one can see that the tree's branches stretch down to the ground forming a magnificent full canopy. In the others one gets a sense of how the branches seem to grow haphazardly in all directions. It's really quite a tree.
Bang Hallet European Weeping Beech

The Beech's Trunk from Below

Under the Canopy

Tree and Sun

Back in my high school years when I first read Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was especially taken by the Ents, that race of giant, mobile, slow-talking, tree-like humanoids who inhabited Middle earth and helped rid the neighborhood of the evil Saruman. It seems the Ents, like the trees they cared for, lived extraordinarily long lives. I can't recall whether Tolkien actually mentions the typical lifespan of an Ent, but I think one of these fictional creatures would be hard-pressed to exceed the lifespans of some of the trees living in our world today. Of course Tolkien was the consummate tree-hugger. Here he is (below) next to one of his favorite trees in Oxford, an old black pine which sadly had to be cut down for safety reasons last year.
J.R.R. Tolkien Greeting One of His Favorites
All this talk of trees called to mind an article I stumbled across recently while searching for something completely unrelated to trees. The article focused on several trees, specifically yews, growing in Wales. The age of some of these remarkable trees is estimated at 5,000 years. In other words, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, these ancient trees were already very old, 3,000 years old. When Abraham had folded his tent in Ur and begun his long trek to the Promised Land, they were 1,000 years old. I've included a photo of one ancient yew growing in a churchyard in the village of Defynnog. It's really quite spectacular, don't you think? If I ever get to Wales, I'll have to pay a visit to one of these trees.
Ancient Yew in Defynnog, Wales
The article on the old, Welsh yews is worth your time -- assuming you want to know more about old trees -- so I've included a link here: The Ancient, Sacred, Regenerative, Death-defying Yew.

There are, of course, many old trees scattered throughout the world: baobab trees in Africa, cypress trees right here in Florida, ancient oaks on almost all continents. But it seems there might be some controversy as to which living tree is actually the world's oldest. As I read about the Welsh yews I recalled something I had read years ago about ancient pine trees growing in America's West. It seems many of the oldest of these bristlecone pines live in California's high country. Experts estimate that some of them, like the Welsh yews, are upwards of 5,000 years old. Unfortunately, they are not particularly attractive trees and, to me at least, resemble glorified stumps, but I suppose like many of us they don't all age gracefully. I've included a photo below so you can make up your own mind.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine - California's Inyo National Forest
Trying to sort out the controversy, I discovered that the yews and pines are actually youngsters when compared to some other trees that are thought to be far older. For example, there's a spruce tree in Sweden that researchers claim is 9,550 years old. When discovered a few years ago, it was thought to be the world's oldest living tree. It actually looks rather ordinary for a creature that predates history itself (see photo below). It reminds me of Charlie Brown's pathetic but sincere little Christmas Tree. You can read about its discovery here: World's Oldest Tree.
Very Old Swedish Spruce

I was sure this Swedish tree had set the record, but then I came across a truly ancient tree. It seems there are eucalyptus trees in New South Wales, Australia -- only five are known to have survived -- that the experts believe to be 13,000 years old. I've included a photo (below) of one of these unusual trees. It's even less attractive than the bristlecone pine.
Australian 13,000-year-old Eucalyptus
Finally, I heard about Palmer's Oak in Riverside, California which is also believed to be nearly 13,000 years old. Like Australia's ancient eucalyptus, it looks more like a shrub than a tree, but perhaps its low profile has helped it survive over the millennia. It is described here and can be seen in the below photo:
13,000-year-old Palmer's Oak in Riverside, California

And so, when it comes to trees, age and beauty don't always coincide. I will always love my weeping beech, along with the huge (now sadly departed) oak tree that stood tall in the back yard of my childhood home. In our front yard grew two wonderful climbing trees -- Japanese Maples -- in which I spent many a summer afternoon seated comfortably among their branches while reading a book. I suppose, like Tolkien, I too am a bit of a tree-hugger, and I thank God for the gift of these wonderful creations.

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