Trees, Christmas and Otherwise

Trees have always had a special place in my heart.

My mother loved trees with the unconditional passion she reserved for all things that lie powerless before the adult world: young children, animals (especially cats), Santa Claus, and dandelions. Every fall when the old cottonwood in the corner of our yard loosed its leaves on the next-door-neighbor’s green and pristinely maintained lawn, she would snicker with childish delight. If my father went to prune a tree or shrub in our yard, she argued against it, fearing he’d cut the plant down to the roots and it wouldn’t come up again.

santa_final_smThe books and stories I read reinforced this maternal teaching. Hans Christian Andersen was the first of my favorite authors, and once I stumbled on his works in the school library, I devoured every story, loving them all, no matter how sad or gruesome. Andersen’s “The Little Fir Tree,” like my “Saint Nick,” is told from the tree’s point of view. It strengthened my belief that trees and plants, though mute, have feelings just as humans do.

When I was a child, the most important ritual of Christmas for me was the getting and decorating of the tree. After it was done, I’d turn off the lamps and sit in the dark, taking off my glasses so that the tree lights glowed like big fuzzy balls. In the light of day, I’d stand and contemplate the tree, taking loving measure of every ornament, stroking its spiky branches. Picking out trinkets for our tree to wear is still one of my favorite pre-Christmas activities.

It’s easy for me to understand the tree worship of some ancient cultures. Trees are big, awe-inspiring, and long-lived. There’s more than a whiff of the sacred around them.

But unlike gods, trees are vulnerable.

I was a sophomore in high school when the Tolkien craze hit, and The Lord of the Rings succeeded Hans Christian Andersen in my personal pantheon of mythic tree lore. Tolkien’s Ents, the gigantic “tree shepherds,” are my favorite of all his creations.

Tolkien was no tree-worshipping pagan, but a staunch and in many ways rather conservative Christian Roman Catholic in an England where Catholicism was still somewhat suspect. His reverence for trees is part of the Catholic reverence for the material world as a sacramental witness to the presence of God.

Trees arouse in us powerful feelings because of their size, their beauty, and their longevity: they are a locus for the sacred.

But for all their magnificence and might, trees in Tolkien’s world, as in ours, are tragically vulnerable to the ravages of human self-centeredness and human greed. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil wizard Saruman cuts them down in quantity to fuel the fires that stoke his schemes of domination. Treebeard, the head of the Ents, describes Saruman as incapable of appreciating nature’s beauty: the evil wizard “has a mind made of metal and wheels”.

Treebeard striding through the wood at Tringford Reservoir. Treebeard is the walking tree (Ent) in the 'Lord of the Rings' - and the unromantic will claim that this is merely the wreck of an ancient horse chestnut tree and dismiss the outstretched arms, the eyes, the ivy covered nose and the open mouth as pure imagination. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection (via Wikimedia Commons). See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Chris Reynolds and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Treebeard striding through the wood at Tringford Reservoir. The unromantic will claim that this is merely the wreck of an ancient horse chestnut tree and dismiss the outstretched arms, the eyes, the ivy covered nose and the open mouth as pure imagination. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. The copyright on this image is owned by Chris Reynolds, who presumably also wrote the whimsical description above.

Thus the vengeance of the Ents upon Saruman is a delight. What green tree-hugger hasn’t wished for an army of Ents to add a little muscle to the cause? Unlike Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Lord of the Rings ends with the trees’ victory.

The Fir Tree of my story does not move in such exalted circles. In many ways “Saint Nick” channels my mother’s antic and rebellious spirit. Fir Tree is cheeky and eager for adventure, in personality more akin to the young hobbit Pippin than to the wise and stately Treebeard. Yet the stories of Tolkien and Andersen run somewhere in its sap, deep down in its treeish DNA.

What’s your favorite tree memory?

This post was originally written for Leila Taylor’s blog, Buried Under Books, where it appeared in Dec. of 2011.

Leave a comment below for a chance of winning “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree” in your choice of paperback or ebook. Contest closes midnight EST Sunday Dec. 8th.

Trees in Paris (first in an occasional series)

Square du Vert-Galant, at the tip of Île de la Cité (photo by Rafael Garica-Suarez, from Wikimedia commons)

Square du Vert-Galant, at the tip of Île de la Cité (photo by Rafael Garcia-Suarez, from Wikimedia commons)

Paris is my favorite city, and one of the reasons for this is the abundance of green space and trees. Miniature parks abound, such as the Place Paul Painlevé off the rue des Ecoles on the Left Bank or the little garden at the western tip of the Île de la Cité, just minutes away from Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame (pictured above). Even paved areas are filled with trees: a narrow strip along the southern bank of the Île Saint Louis which abuts the high retaining wall that guards the island from floods is planted with chestnut trees every few feet, adding to the romantic view along this iconic part of the River Seine.

The chestnut trees are ubiquitous. I think of them as THE Paris tree.  Chestnuts line the long allées of the Jardin des Plantes, the city’s magnificent botanical garden, which is located just outside of the touristy areas, at the southern edge of the fifth arrondissement. They also grace Paris’s other major Left Bank park, the Luxembourg Gardens. Both parks are large and divided into a multiplicity of varied spaces that accommodate everything from sitting quietly with a good book under the trees to play areas for kids to allées and circuits for joggers. Each provides a neighborhood oasis where people can leave the bustling streets and relax.

Luxembourg Garden (photo by Claude Andropia, from Wikimedia commons)

Luxembourg Garden (photo by Claude Andropia, from Wikimedia commons)

In his book Second Nature, journalist Michael Pollan writes about the way gardens create a particular type of space, neither wilderness nor concrete jungle, where humans and nature attain a mutual accommodation: Trees and bushes are pruned and weeds weeded out, but in return the plants that live in this tamed space are given attention and care. Paris is a perfect example of how this balance can be played out in an entire city.

If you’re curious to read more about trees in Paris, here are some excellent blog posts, the first two dealing with the historical reasons behind the city’s wealth of trees, the last one a lovely and detailed appreciation: and and


Kids and Trees

Photo by Carl E. Lewis from Flickr Creative Commons

When I was small, mimosas were my favorite kind of tree. For one thing, they were just the right size. I wasn’t athletic and I’ve never had a head for heights, but I could easily “climb” into the low fork of the mimosa in our backyard and stay in my little tree nest for the longest time.

I loved playing with the bright pink flowers and palmlike leaves, too. I’d weave the individual fronds around the central stem of the leaf to create little garlands. I’d wear the flowers in my hair or give them to my stuffed animals. The flowers were not only bright and beautiful, but satisfying to the touch. Slightly sticky, with a feathery kind of feel, sort of like cotton candy.

Mimosas have cool bean pods, too, especially when they’ve dried. By late summer, the ground beneath our tree would be covered with the pale brown pods, just begging for closer examination. They were easy to dissect, peeling readily into two halves. The tiny dark brown seeds thus revealed served in their turn as interesting play objects that could be counted and lined up in various ways. Or you could leave the pods whole and shake them, enjoying the satisfying rattle of the seeds inside. All in all, it was a wonderfully tactile plant, just perfect for a small child.

Seemingly small, a trivial thing, yet I think my play with mimosas was one of the experiences that gave me a deep and abiding appreciation for nature, both its beauty and the companionship it offers.

What was your favorite tree or plant when you were a kid? And why?

Celebrate Earth Day with poet-farmer Wendell Berry

If I were looking for a patron saint for this blog, Wendell Berry would be a good candidate. He’s a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, and essays and has lived as a small farmer in Kentucky for decades. His essays explore various topics, but all are informed by a Christian spirituality that embraces social justice and a deep-rooted love for the earth.

I am most familiar with his poetry, much of which celebrates the beauty and goodness of trees. Think Robert Frost meets Gerard Manley Hopkins. That is, the rural sensibility and topics of Frost combined with the spiritual emphasis and sacramental viewpoint of Hopkins. By “sacramental” I mean a point of view that celebrates the spiritual depth of earthly things, especially nature. (I’m not accusing Robert Frost of lacking spirituality! It’s just that his sensibility is a little more pragmatic than that of Hopkins, while Berry’s is somewhere between the two.)

Here is a sample verse:

“Planting trees early in spring
We make a place for birds to sing
There is no other guarantee
That singing will ever be.”

I know it by heart because it’s one of several “tree poems” set to music in Malcolm Dalglish‘s wonderful album “Hymnody of Earth,” one of my favorites to play around Christmas and the winter solstice. It’s also a good illustration of the way Berry’s work both celebrates and exemplifies the harmony that exists in nature: the interdependence of humans, plants, and animals. Harmony in more than one sense: harmony of music and sound (the birdsong), which is dependent on the harmony fostered by a carefully tended environment. There is a message, but it is inspirational rather than preachy. Ultimately, it is up to us, up to humankind, to provide the nurture that will guarantee the continued beauty of the earth.

If you can’t get outside to plant a tree this weekend, celebrate April 22’s Earth Day by picking up a book of Wendell Berry’s. In fact, read something of his regardless of how you spend the day. If you love the earth, you’ll find a kindred spirit in his words.

Death of a Little Grove

"Arashiyama near Kyoto"photo courtesy of katclay (Flickr Creative Commons)

I took a day off from work today and for a while was in a great mood.

I wrote nearly 2500 words in my WIP, a near-record for me, then took a walk to the post office and drugstore.

It is a beautiful day, a bit on the cool side, but after the record-breaking heat of March that’s fine with me. The cherry trees are all in bloom, the tulips are up, everything is leafing out. Ah, the joy of spring.

Going back from the drugstore, I took a different route home. On my way I passed a house that had seen some changes over the last few months, changes that didn’t bode well.

Last year at this time, the house, a charming little stone cottage, was surrounded by trees. It always made me think of a house in a fairy tale, snugly tucked in its own little miniature forest. The edge of the yard that borders the sidewalk and road was planted with a little row of fir trees, and a new one or two seemed to be added each year. Beyond them, the yard was chock full of other green, leafy companions. I always smiled when I passed it; it was like a little Christmas-tree farm, and I knew a kindred spirit lived there.

A few months ago, we noticed that the lamppost had fallen down. The next time we passed, it was still there, untended. My husband and I wondered about the person who lived there: had they died, been taken ill? I thought of my parents in their last years after my father’s sudden illness. Neither my sister nor I lived in the same town and our visits were too full of care-taking to have much energy left to think about yard work. Something similar had happened here.

All through the winter the lamp post remained like that.

Then today as I passed, I saw the house laid bare. Naked, denuded, alone.

Nearly all the trees surrounding it had been cut down, including two humongous trunks that looked like they had been venerable sycamores. Stacks of wood were piled in the dirt-bare yard. A few straggling little firs were left at the border of the yard, a pitiful remnant but they may be gone, too, the next time. If trees can feel, what must they have felt to have seen the butchering of their elder brethren?

I felt like crying. The wanton destruction cast a pall on the beautiful day.

And I felt rage. I wished for an army of Ents to come down and beat up those responsible.

For laying waste such beauty.

For such blatant disregard for another form of life that gives so much to humanity.

All I can do is bear witness to their destruction.

I wonder if the owner is dead. Or in the sterile confines of a nursing home. My heart goes out to that kindred spirit who loved trees as I do.

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