Thursday, July 28, 2011

`More Resigned to the Way They Have to Live'

Only this week did I learn that I work in an arboretum. In 1999, the Rice University campus, all 295 acres of it, was dedicated as the Lynn R. Lowery Arboretum, named for a Louisiana-born Houston horticulturalist. According to the inventory conducted after the devastation caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008, the arboretum contains 4,781 trees representing 168 species. Not surprisingly, live oaks (Quercus virginiana), with 2,262 trees, are most numerous. Go here to see a live oak-canopied path I walk every day, and remember the lines from Louise Bogan’s “Knowledge”:

“Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.”

In his chapter on live oaks in Remarkable Plants of Texas (University of Texas Press, 2009), Matt Warnock Turner writes:

“Texas is blessed with oaks. In fact, we have more species of oak than of any other tree. Approximately three-fourths of U.S. oak species grow in our state, thanks to its size, geographic diversity, and proximity to Mexico, which itself boasts 60% of all New World species.”

Thirteen oak species grow on the Rice campus, and their common names suggest a homely poetry: white, overcup, bur, basket, chinkapin, water, willow, Monterrey, Shumard, post, cork, Texas, live. The Shumard, by the way, is named for Benjamin Franklin Shumard (1820-69), Texas state geologist and professor of obstetrics at the University of Missouri.

On my desk next to the paper wasp nest I found outside my office window last week is the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) sprig picked Tuesday on the way back from lunch. The tree, one of sixty-three sweetgums on campus, stands just east of my building, surrounded by live oaks. The three leaves are maple-like, and the spiky seed case dangles like one-third of a pawnbroker’s symbol. (Look at this guy.) In Trees of Texas (Texas A&M University Press, 2003), Carmine Stahl and Ria McElvaney write:

“Gray squirrels, flying squirrels, and at least twenty-five species of birds eat the seeds. The wood offers a wide variety of uses for musical instruments, veneers, cabinets, furniture, boxes, and more.”

Some people need the proximity of mountains or ocean to know contentment. All I need are trees. In Chapter VII of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, Marie Tovesky says to Emil Bergson:

“I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.”

[ADDENDUM: Dave Lull passes along this passage from Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson by Hester Thrale (Hester Lynch Piozzi): “He loved the sight of fine forest trees however, and detested Brighthelmstone Downs [Brighton], `because it was a country so truly desolate (he said), that if one had a mind to hang one's self for desperation at being obliged to live there, it would be difficult to find a tree on which to fasten the rope.’”]

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