I was 10 years old and in the fifth grade when I heard Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees. My curly gray-haired teacher, only a few years short of retirement, never lost her enthusiasm for teaching or for poetry. She read poems to us a couple times a week and had us memorize them. She had a poet’s heart and eye. I can still see in my own mind’s eye a clear, starry Vermont night with the moon so bright you could read a book by it. I’ve never been to Vermont, but she described it so poetically that I was there, right beside her young self as she read a book by moonlight.
She introduced me to Trees and to the sacredness of trees.
As she read the poem, she asked us to imagine each line and to think about our own trees. We memorized the lines and recited them back to her, knowing that, if not to us, they were sacred to her. Trees were sacred. Poetry was sacred. Words were purposeful, insightful, evocative. It is what comes to my mind when I am to name and describe my favorite teacher.
Thank you, Mrs. Kahnt, for awakening me to trees (and to so much more.)
As part of our tree experience, we learned about different shapes of leaves and how they belonged to different tree families. I collected dozens of leaves, searching for as many different shapes as I could find. I arranged them and made placemats by ironing them between two sheets of wax paper.
Thank you, Mom, for indulging me.
There were two giant cottonwoods that stood sentinel on either side of the front door of my growing-up house, an old Spanish adobe on a couple of acres in the north valley of Albuquerque. Out back, by the ditch bank, stood another majestic cottonwood. Long before I became a photographer, I burned an image of that tree into my memory. A storm was coming in and the turquoise New Mexican sky turned a deep slate blue. A shaft of sunlight set that tree on fire. I stood transfixed wanting to memorize the stillness, the vibrant colors, the drama of an oncoming storm. Golden leaves against a slate-blue sky.
Thank you, New Mexico, for dramatic vistas, cottonwoods, elms, Pinons and Ponderosa Pines.
To the south of the house stood a small orchard of apple, plum, apricot, and pear trees. In the pantry stood jars and jars of jellies, jams and applesauce. I didn’t know the wealth I had. I simply took it for granted that, of course, we had all the applesauce and jelly we could eat and give away. I only began to understand how fortunate I was many years later when we took our young family to visit their grandparents. My 2-year-old son came running into the house exclaiming his amazing discovery: “Mom! There’s food growing on trees!”
Thank you, apple, plum, apricot and pear trees for your gifts year after year after year.
Thank you, Mom, for hours and hours of labor year after year so we could enjoy those gifts.
So many delightful memories of trees.
The Japanese Maple that stood outside my dining room window in Dallas, its leaves turning deep burgundy in the fall, making a stunning fashion statement against the rose-colored brick.
The Crepe Myrtles all over Central Texas but especially the stunning Crepe Myrtle canopy over a walkway to a delightful fountain of frogs at the Dallas Arboretum.
The Piney Woods of Deep East Texas aptly named for the thick forests of tall, tall pine trees.
Which reminds me of another story. My husband’s family is from West Texas where trees are few and far between. Mesquites mostly. I will never forget the day we were all in deep East Texas for a cousin’s wedding. His grandmother was in the car with us, headed for the chapel.
“Mimmy,” I said, “Isn’t this area beautiful?!”
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I can’t see anything for all these trees!”
Some areas of Texas have beautiful sunsets that fill the skies. Some have forests.
Thank you, Japanese Maples, Crepe Myrtles, and giant pine trees that hide the sunset. And thank you for wide-open skies that offer their gifts of dramatic sunsets with a Mesquite or two sprinkled in for interest.
Now I live in Colorado where hundreds of leaf-peepers come to see the Quaking Aspen every fall. Perhaps one day I’ll get to New England to see the dramatic fall colors up there. Maybe I’ll make it at last to Vermont and read a book by moonlight. In the meantime, I’ll relish my own backyard.
Thank all of you trees who put on lavish party clothes in autumn: aspen, maples, Crape Myrtle, oak, pear, birch, and more I have yet to see.
So many trees I’ve known and loved in my lifetime.
And, of course, there’s my own Bill Bailey. Remember Bill Bailey and the woman who so desperately wanted him to come home? I’m here to tell you that Bill Bailey is strong and healthy and lives in my backyard.
About six years ago, a few months after we moved to Northern Colorado, we landscaped our backyard. Among the trees we planted was a Serbian Pine, a beautiful small pine that wouldn’t get too big for the yard. That fall there came an early freeze, a deep freeze that caught us all by surprise, including the trees that hadn’t had the usual time to winterize themselves with a gradual cooling off period. The next Spring, we saw tree damage all over town. Lots of dead, brown needles where spring green should have been. Out in our backyard, our own little Serbian Pine was suffering. Lots of brown among the green.
So began my ritual of going out to that tree and gently pulling out the dead needles, the ones that would release easily. As I circled the tree, I sang, “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey? Won’t you come home? I know I did you wrong….” I was using my fingers as a fine-tooth comb to groom him, remove the damage of the early frost. All that spring, I sang to Bill Bailey, and I’m happy to report that he DID come home. Robust and proud!
Thank you, Bill Bailey!
This past fall, our next-door neighbors planted a dwarf evergreen in the space between our two yards. We have a similar one about eight feet away. At Christmas time, we each strung our little trees with twinkly white lights. One day I saw her walking around her little tree, ‘round and ‘round. I asked what she was doing. “Oh, I was just singing ‘Oh Tannenbaum’ to my little tree. It’s something my mom taught me to do.” She was called away before I could tell her about Bill Bailey, but at least I knew I was in good company!
Thank you for singing to trees.
I would like to end this love note to trees with a Mary Oliver poem:
WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”
Thank you to poets everywhere who speak my love for trees. There are many. Thank you especially to poet John Fox who facilitates workshops on “Writing our relationships with trees: What this can teach us about ourselves and living within the sacred.” (poeticmedicine.org.)
And you, my dear friend, do you have a special tree story to share with me?