“I think that I shall never see /A poem lovely as a tree. “— Joyce Kilmer
Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem recycles in my brain when I walk along a woodsy trail here in Easton or close by. In the last decade I have embraced my own affinity for trees, especially large ones, old ones, with their woody arms and bodies and basket of greenery on their heads. Standing firm under airy sky, they wave their branches to and fro, inviting birds and squirrels to get on board. They filter the light and clean the air of CO2. Shading life below from the sun’s blaze, their roots anchor the soil and feed it with nutrients and hold its water. Without voice or call they speak to us in their serene calm, in their dances with wind.
A decade or so ago, I took up watercolor painting; that’s when I realized that trees were ever-present in my mind’s eye. Most of my paintings were treescapes or abstract trees. When I took my work into a gallery to discuss its “showability,” the gallery owner squirmed slightly before diving in with advice: get some oils, ditch the watercolor, and stop painting trees! I decided then to paint because I wanted to, never mind showing my work.
A few years later a friend from Germany sent me a book that had just been translated into English. I was mesmerized by Peter Wohlleben’s discoveries from a secret world. In “The Hidden Life of Trees,” I learned how trees communicate with one another, how, using taste and smell, they signal when there’s danger; how they share water and nutrients during hard times. Last year the American novelist Richard Powers won the Pulitzer for “The Overstory,” which continues to unveil the deep complexity and mystery of trees. Poems—and watercolor paintings—are made by fools like Kilmer and me, but the beauty of trees is intrinsic and their own. Wohlleben and Powers have shown that people are paying attention and willing to read complex books about trees. I wonder if the gallery guy has taken note. He hasn’t called me yet.
Looking back, I see trees as totems in my life beginning around age 10. I mostly grew up in South Dakota, near the Black Hills, where, according to a locally popular song, “the pines are so high that they kiss the sky above.” Most of these are Ponderosa pines, large conifers that grow to a towering 30 to 50 meters, and if conditions are right, can live for centuries, as long as 600 years. The first trees I appreciated, I’d stand beneath them, inhaling the piney scent and pressing my long thumbnails into their spongy bark, creating little half moons.
Bedazzled by the piles of soft needles beneath these behemoths, I wondered what kind of uses could there be for so much soft groundcover. Later I learned that Native Americans used the needles for dermatological and gynecological purposes. In fact, Native people used Ponderosas for building, household, food and ceremonial purposes. Pitch, for example, was for sores and scabby skin; for backaches and rheumatism; earaches and inflamed eyes. It came in handy as a sleep agent for infants. Ponderosa pine boughs were used in sweat lodges.
Another key tree species in the Black Hills is Quaking Aspen, a member of the willow family and the most widespread tree on the North American continent. With its ever-trembling leaves, light green in spring and summer, golden in the fall, it splashes sunshine everywhere. Native people made use of the analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties of its smooth, pale bark.
There is an abundance of white spruce in the Black Hills. Fragrant trees that are a favorite Christmas tree pick, they grow the farthest north of any tree in the world. A hardy survivor, they’re the principal tree of the largest conifer forests in the world. I hope to visit these boreal forests in Canada some day, to see unbroken swaths of spruce and fir. In my imagination, I ride through the snowy wood on a sleigh, “The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.” (Seems Robert Frost loved woods as well!)
Even as a young girl it was evident to me why the Black Hills were referred to as they were: from a distance, the heavy groves of pine look black against the surrounding grassland. Ponderosa pine groves, with surrounding granite cliffs, clear lakes and expanses of meadow make for some pretty land. Thrown into the panorama: big, wide skies, canvases painted by gods, with horizons that stretch your eye in their unfurling.
I carry these vistas of land, lake sky and trees within me, and they speak to me and through me. I hear Kilmer’s poem; I look at trees with awe and gratitude; I put down color on paper and all kinds of trees emerge.
When asked where you would choose to live, say on the shore, in the mountains, on the plains or desert, or in the woods, I always answer woods. I sometimes fantasize that my long-ago ancestors must have been forest dwellers and that’s why I feel at home near trees. Having lived in Easton for nearly 40 years, I am a lucky resident of an east coast habitat populated by hardwoods of magnitude: oak, beech, maple, hickory. New Brunswick, N. J., home of the majestic oak that inspired Joyce Kilmer’s poem, isn’t far away. Though the poet died in France during WWI, a century later I continue to honor his oak, his trees; to me they are the grand green flags of country Earth.
In 1940, the great Irish tenor John McCormack made a recording of a song based on Kilmer’s poem, “Trees.” Click here to listen:
Sonneborn took the slideshow photos in her Easton backyard and at Randall’s Farm Preserve.