Retiring faculty and staff at Rice University with at least twenty years of service get a tree. That is, one of the roughly 4,200 trees on campus is dedicated to them. A metal plaque with their name and title, and the name of the tree (we have eighty-eight species), is bolted to a stone and the stone is planted beneath the tree. For my money, this beats having your name affixed to a nanotechnology lab.
On the way back from the library I paused to read one of the plaques, this one dedicated to the late Norman Hackerman, a chemistry professor and for fifteen years the president of the university. His tree is a particularly lush Quercus virginiana, a southern live oak that stands across the road from my building and appears unfazed by the drought. One of the associate deans walked past and expressed the fear that because a lot of people work a long time for the university, easily accruing twenty years and more, we may soon run out of trees. We agreed the solution was a happy one: Plant more of them.
I realized that standing beneath one of the dedicated trees and reading the plaque reminded me of another, more somber act – reading headstones in a cemetery. Not all of the dedicatees are dead, of course, but still there’s something reverential about the act, demanding thoughtfulness and respect, even if we've never met the retiree or recognized the name. For this reason, living trees, cared for by campus groundskeepers but necessarily tough customers in this climate, are fitting shrines, one I hope to earn.
In the Nov. 4, 1950, issue of The New Yorker, Richard Wilbur published “In the Elegy Season,” a poem collected that same year in Ceremony and Other Poems. It’s a tour de force of technique and feeling. All Souls’ Day is Nov. 2, Día de los Muertos for many in this part of the country. The poem’s second line is one of the finest Wilbur has ever written, as is the entire poem:
“Haze, char, and the weather of All Souls’:
A giant absence mopes upon the trees:
Leaves cast in casual potpourris
Whisper their scents from pits and cellar-holes.
“Or brewed in gulleys, steeped in wells, they spend
In chilly steam their last aromas, yield
From shallow hells a revenance of field
And orchard air. And now the envious mind
“Which could not hold the summer in my head
While bounded by that blazing circumstance
Parades these barrens in a golden trance,
Remembering the wealthy season dead,
“And by an autumn inspiration makes
A summer all its own. Green boughs arise
Through all the boundless backward of the eyes,
And the soul bathes in warm conceptual lakes.
“Less proud than this, my body leans an ear
Past cold and colder weather after wings’
Soft commotion, the sudden race of springs,
The goddess’ tread heard on the dayward stair,
"Longs for the brush of the freighted air, for smells
Of grass and cordial lilac, for the sight
Of green leaves building into the light
And azure water hoisting out of wells.”
The seasons in Houston are flattened, without the colorful demarcations of the North. I miss the latitudinal drama of autumn, its beauty and cyclical reassurance, but take some comfort in Wilbur’s reminder that “an autumn inspiration makes / A summer all its own.”