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Naming Trees

Naming Trees

By Kwame Dawes

Alice Friman reminds us of the vanity in our relationship with trees—“they symbolize / nothing,” she says and she is both right and wrong. Trees, no doubt, care less how we represent them, and our efforts at granting them meaning are rooted in our own vanities as human beings—not capricious vanities, mind you, but certainly self-serving gestures that keep us nicely situated at the center of the universe. So, they symbolize nothing. But of course, they symbolize everything for us. We work at this. Their capacity to tower over us, to crowd our world, to become a part of our cycle of aging and dying, and their capacity to be missed on denuded and treeless spaces, makes them perfectly suited for our symbolizing impulse. It is inevitable that poets have some relationship with trees.

Here is a trick I use as a poet: when I travel to a new place where I expect to live for a while, I learn, as soon as I can, the names of the trees. In South Carolina, I asked an arborist to tell me the names of trees. I felt like the child of Jah in Burning Spear's brilliant song “Jah is my Driver” as she pointed to a tree and spoke its name—dogwood, magnolia, live oak, crepe myrtle, ginkgo, palmetto, pecan, and on and on. I mouthed the names and let them settle in my head. Soon the poems were filling up with these names and it felt like a kind of initiation into the free masonry of the Carolina landscape.

Nebraska is flat. This is not a remarkable observation. The flatness is so basic to the space that calling it flat seems entirely redundant. Driving along I-80, which cuts across the state, the flatness is almost heroic in its persistence—blunt, unassuming, defiantly humble. The small indulgences are the stands of trees that interrupt the prairie lands. Survivors, all. I imagine that early white settlers sought out these stands, hoping for cool and the occasional sense of variance, hoping that by finding trees they would find fecund earth, high water plates. And those who did not find trees planted their own. I still have not quite learned the names of trees in Nebraska. But this, too, will come.

The poets in this FUSION issue are far less interested in naming trees than they are in finding symbolic affiliation with trees. There is little hugging, and one poet even upbraids herself for pitying the death of an old tree since there are old men who, she says, look like these trees and deserve, perhaps, even more pity. The range of trees is limited—palm trees, fruit trees, oak trees, and, a curious anomaly, the rhubarb plant, which is not quite a tree but has all the symbolic properties that we like to employ in trees: unruly growth, war with other plant types, and some human-like qualities that suit us. Mostly the trees are generic. They change in autumn and become markers of the natural world—objects that teach us what it means to be scarred, to give shelter, to look stoic in the face of change, and, of course, to die.

In many ways, how we write about trees says a great deal about how we think and feel as different cultures. I was in Nairobi a few months ago and took a drive further up into the hills. My host lives in a cottage that rises like an intrusion on acres of trees and bushes, a grand entanglement—an English garden on steroids. She knew the names of the trees, but most impressive was that she knew which trees had been planted by her or her son, and which predated the family's arrival. Her children are away, but she knows they will all come back. “They buried navels and placentas of my grandchildren under the saplings of those lovely trees there,” she said with a mischievous grin. “When they are here they run into the forest as if it is their habitat.” I am reminded of Fania Kruger's poem about the Palestinian sisters in their red dresses who plant a tree as a ritual of the encroaching winter. Mother and father help and teach. It is the mother who turns the act into a gesture of human significance:

“Children,” the mother says,
“No tree is barren when a new one is planted . . .”
Now these daughters, twigs of herself,
Gather the fruit of years into a basket.
And the branches of the seasons,
The barren, the fruitful,
Form into a perfect circle.

Built into this ritual is the inevitable theme of husbandry, of custodianship, and of judgment. The naming of a tree as barren, and the effort of a mother to retrieve some hope in the midst of barrenness, demonstrates how we use trees, how we seek our solace in the life of trees. The perfect world is a world of fruitful and barren women. The trees, as Friman reminds us, are silent, and in their silence they infuriate us, driving us to creativity:

In all their grace
And terrible nakedness they symbolize
Nothing. They are beyond us.
How can we bear it?

It is in this same spirit, one expects, that John Kinsella offers us his portrait of lichen. There is, though, no grace here, and everything in the act of poetic effort is caught in the bathos of bland simile. This is a tragic-comic commentary on our husbandry. It is fascinating how a seemingly innocuous simile multiplies like the disease of human intrusion on the landscape in a brief poem of biting irony:

Grizzled on rocks and trees
a lukewarm green like a brand
of house-paint - a fad
long faded from the market; cladding
painted over, patios trained,
brought to order.

Of course, his is not a poem about trees, but then, this is true of most, if not all, the poems here. Short of the disciplined resistance to the anthropomorphizing tendencies of symbol and metaphor in haiku, one has to make an effort to avoid the lure of symbolism and meaning when poets write about trees. And these poets work hard to avoid such easy poetic gestures. That said, the tree is a tempting symbol, isn’t it? And where the poets do indulge, the effect is actually gratifying and as familiar as ancient prayer. Trees, after all, often outlive us by generations, and yet they are so profoundly vulnerable to our husbandry and power. They fill us with awe, envy, and indifference. For most human beings, the presence of trees signals the potential for a livable habitat, and so we value them as symbols of possibility. The first psalm presents us with that elegant connection with trees:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
² but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
³ That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

The translation is a tad clunky, but even that cannot hide the richness of the passage, full of the key elements of our relationship with trees. One need not dwell on this too much; after all, we will also have to include the verses that follow describing the other side of the simile—those who will be blown away like chaff, or those, in other words, who Jesus symbolizes in the cursed tree in the gospels. Our selections this time tend to avoid the cursed tree variety, though there are lovely hints of it in the allusions to trees as old people, as vulnerable figures, and so on.

If poets of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries seem to carry a heavy tone of nostalgia and shunting loss when they write of trees, they can be forgiven. It is the rituals of their tree-life that will start to show the evidence of that slow, inexorable march toward apocalyptic doom that is our doomsday mythos in these all-too-real times of devastating fires, tornadoes, droughts, and floods. It is easy to quote from books of the end days from various religions as a long-range weather report.

In Maggie Tobin's artwork, I am tempted, as a poet, to find in the starkly skeletal winter-stripped branches of trees set against a varying and hauntingly beautiful skyline the tributaries of veins or the tendrils of nerve endings. Of course, she is working with sharply defined images that find in the most naturalistic representations of the world a kind of surrealism that begs for metaphorical readings. This last statement says far more about the annoying practices of poets schooled in western prosody than about the artist herself. And maybe that is a handy lesson about how we meet the world around us, how we engage that world without our art.

Blessedly, this selection of poems, and the quite arresting art that accompanies it, offers us the dignity and power of the tree and, at the same time, willingly draws our attention to the ways in which the tree connects and swells our human condition.


Kwame Dawes Photo by

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Kwame Dawes is the author of eighteen collections of poetry, most recently  Duppy Conqueror (Copper Canyon P), as well as two novels, several anthologies, and plays. He has won two Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Emmy. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he is a Chancellor's Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner.

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