Friday, April 26, 2019

Arbor Day Verse Beyond Joyce Kilmer

School Children plant a tree in 1909 in Nebraska, the state where Arbor Day originated.
Before Earth Day, Arbor Day was the primary environmental celebration and a semi-holiday in the United States.  And for a while it was a very big deal with tens of thousands of volunteers across the country planting and tending trees.  The results were breath taking.  Arbor Day is often credited with re-foresting American cities and towns. 
Old 19th Century photographs reveal that many were barren urban wastelands long denuded of foliage with buildings jammed together and coming right up to streets and crude sidewalks.  In Chicago, for instance, Daniel Burnham’s famous network of grand boulevards which radiated from the downtown core piercing the neighborhoods with trees was influenced by the Arbor Day movement.  Later the smaller boulevards—the local name for the strip of ground between the sidewalk and the street—were planted with trees, many by the CCC during the Great Depression.  Not only did all of those trees greatly improve the look of the city, they helped dramatically clean the air and provided much needed shade that helped cool city folk through sweltering summers.  Some sociologists even noted reduction in crime in neighborhoods with trees.
Tree planting festivals have been traced by to the Spanish village of Villanueva de la Sierra in 1805 where a local Priest organized a three day fiesta around planting hundreds of trees.  The custom spread to neighboring villages and towns.
In America Arbor Day was founded in 1872 by Democratic politician and later Secretary of Agriculture Julius Sterling Morton at Nebraska City, Nebraska.  That first year 10,000 trees were planted in and around the community.  Anyone who has ever visited Nebraska can attest to the crying need for trees on its vast High Plains.  Morton’s son, Joy Morton, the founder of the Morton Salt Company in Chicago, shared his father’s enthusiasm and founded the Morton Arboretum in suburban Lyle centered on the ground of his estate.
The first observance drew national attention and soon other towns were emulating it.  By 1883 the American Forestry Association officially endorsed Arbor Day and named Birdseye Northrop of Connecticut as Chairman of a committee to make the day an official national celebration.  Birdseye, who liked to travel, also introduced the idea to Japan, Australia, Canada, and back to Europe.
In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt issued an Arbor Day Proclamation to the School Children of the United States.  It became an annual tradition.  Eventually Congress designated the final Friday of April for the observance and several states make it a holiday.  
The Post Office celebrated the 50th anniversary of Arbor Day.
In the early years the Boy Scouts were heavily mobilized for tree planting and many troops continue that tradition.  As observed the CCC and the WPA in conjunction with National Forest Service were employed during the Depression.
Tree plantings continue, but the spotlight seldom shines on Arbor Day anymore.
But we can celebrate with poetry, naturally.  Poets probably have been versifying about trees since the first bard plucked his lyre.  Yet most of us can only recall Joyce Kilmer’s Trees.  With apologies to Kilmer who was killed in the trenches of World War I just as his hymn to trees was becoming famous, it is a pretty bad poem filled with mixed and conflicting metaphors.  We can do better.
A Young William Carlos Williams.
Take Dr. Williams, for instance.  The great poetic innovator of Patterson, New Jersey paused to take in the barren trees of winter.  Ever creative note his charming coining of a word in the third line.

Winter Trees
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold

—William Carlos Williams

H.D.--Hilda Doolittle.

Hilda Doolittle was an American poet from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania who moved to England in 1911 when she was 25 years old.  Writing as simply H.D. she became a close associate of Ezra Pound and a central figure in the avant garde imagist movement that revolutionized 20th Century Poetry.  After being nearly forgotten, she was rediscovered by the women’s studies movement in academia. 

Pear Tree

Silver dust  
lifted from the earth,  
higher than my arms reach,  
you have mounted.  
O silver,
higher than my arms reach  
you front us with great mass;  
no flower ever opened  
so staunch a white leaf,  
no flower ever parted silver
from such rare silver;  
O white pear,  
your flower-tufts,  
thick on the branch,  
bring summer and ripe fruits
in their purple hearts.


Wendell Berry.

O.K, show of hands.  Who is surprised that farmer/activist/poet Wendell Berry, appreciates trees?


I part the out thrusting branches
and come in beneath
the blessed and the blessing trees.
Though I am silent
there is singing around me.
Though I am dark
there is vision around me.
Though I am heavy
there is flight around me.

Wendell Berry

The tree planting janitor of Briargate School, 2004
For twenty years this poet was a school custodian in McHenry County, Illinois.  Among his many duties was occasionally planting trees on the grounds.  At least once the job got inside his head.  The result, this poem from the 2004 Skinner House collection We Build Temples in the Heart.

The Janitor’s Epiphany

In the mist of a late, cool spring,
            a common workman’s callused boot
            impelled the spade
            which sliced the velvet lawn
            and turned the Black Forest cake earth.

And in time he filled the hole casually,
            as if it were any other job,
            with a young tree yanked rudely
            from its old place and flung down here
            before the school.

Satisfied and ready to turn away,
            he stopped short and looked again—
this is a Great Thing, he thought,
and cries to heaven for ceremony,
for some note that life has happened here.

            Yet civic virtue stilled his lips,
                        lest his sectarian prayer rend a fragile peace,
                        and his own reason mocked an active ear
                        waiting on the supplicant’s plea
                        to do something, anything.

            But the rhythms of the season echoed here,
                        the shade of generations turned
                        with the spade and loam—
a Great Thing has happened
and cries out to heaven for ceremony,
for some note that life has happened here.

—Patrick Murfin

Jennifer K. Sweeney
Jennifer K. Sweeney is a rising poet born in 1973 in Connecticut.  She is the author of two prize winning collections, Salt Memory in 2006 and How to Live on Bread and Music in 2009.  She currently lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan with her husband, poet Chad Sweeney.  If the previous poet learned from planting a tree, she and that husband were enlightened by trying to remove one.
How to Uproot a Tree

Stupidity helps.
Naiveté that your hands will undo
what does perfectly without you.
My husband and I made the decision
not to stop until the task was done,
the small anemic tree made room
for something prettier.
We’d pulled before, pale hand over wide hand,
a marriage of pulling toward us what we wanted,
pushing away what we did not.
We had a shovel which was mostly for show.
It was mostly our fingers tunneling the dirt
toward a tangle of false beginnings.
The roots were branched and bearded,
some had spurs
and one of them was wholly reptilian.
They had been where we had not
and held a knit gravity
that was not in their will to let go.
We bent the trunk to the ground and sat on it,
twisted from all angles.
How like ropes it was,
the sickly thing asserting its will
only now at the end,
blind but beyond
the idea of leaving the earth.

—Jennifer K. Sweeney

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