I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree…
Joyce Kilmer’s Trees was one of the first poems I ever memorized, partly because we sang it at Lucretia Mott Public School # 3 in Indianapolis, partly because it was short and simple, mostly because it rang true to me
I learned the incorrect version, of course, since we sang it. Kilmer closed it with: Poems are written by fools like me, but only God can make a tree. The song version says: Poems are made by fools like me…
I knew more about poems than trees, though, living in the inner-city of Indianapolis. It was only when we moved to a farm near Oakland City, 135 miles south of Indy, that I really began to understand trees, and to appreciate them.
My father was a good shade-tree botanist. He was an outdoorsman. He knew animals and plants. He could name trees. It’s strange, since I love words so much, that I learned so few trees by name.
On the farm, I learned to love trees and plants, except for the ones I had to hoe in the garden, or put up as hay, but I rarely learned their names. I learned the ones everyone knew--maples, oaks, willows, fruit trees in their ripe seasons. I never learned to tell a hickory from an ash, though. All that was really important, it seemed to me, was the shade.
The summers in southern Indiana were long and hot and humid. Life was physical and sweaty. We carried water and fire wood in and out. We heated water on a wood stove and washed clothes in a wringer washer and hung them on a line. We hoed and canned vegetables. We had no air conditioning. We did have electricity, but only one old-fashioned slow-moving fan.
In our front yard, though, we had shade trees—big maples. The front yard was open on all sides except for the house. There was almost always a breeze. When the heat became too much, I would flop down on the grass in the front yard, in the shade of those leafy maples, and feel the breeze.
Trees hardly ever do harm. They provide shade in summer. They provide homes for birds and small animals and insects. They share their limbs with children, to climb on, to hang a swing from. Their roots keep erosion away. They provide beauty in spring and fall. They often provide fruits that are delightful to eat. They cleanse the air and provide oxygen.
When they do damage, it’s not their fault. It’s because of disease or wind that has caused them to drop their limbs on your Volvo.
The trees are beautiful in spring and summer and autumn, but in winter, we can see the trunk and the limbs. They have their own beauty. In winter we see the beauty of what is below.
In my own winter, I have learned better to appreciate the beauty of the structure of trees. It’s not just about the shade anymore.
Now spring is almost here again. Around here, the magnolias show their flowers first, and the one a block from our house came out yesterday. That basic beauty of the limbs of the trees will soon be covered over with pastel blossoms and green leaves. But that trunk and those limbs will still be there, the foundation for all that God’s trees do to make life better.