It never occurred to me as a boy that trees would remain central to my personal mythology. We lived beside a dense second-growth woods in the suburbs – ash, elm, wild cherry, poplar, crab apple and a scattering of maple and oak. It was where we played and learned, haphazardly, the rudiments of biology. It was also sanctuary, away from the tensions and uncertainties of home. Parents seldom ventured into the woods, as though life were an inverted fairy tale. Home versus nature: an appealing but not-so-simple dichotomy, for home also represented books and writing – an alternative sanctuary. To this day I feel uncomfortable carrying a book on a hike, fearing it will be soiled or soaked, and nagged by the sense I will blur incompatible realms.
In any landscape I look first for the trees. Writing about autumn maples, I once described them as “sugar factories,” shorthand for photosynthesis. The phrase also connotes sweetness – in the vernacular, “eye candy.” But it’s more than beauty. Richard Wilbur comes close in “Green” to articulating the seductiveness of trees: “A green with no apparent role, unless/To be the symbol of a great largesse.” That’s it: largesse, bounty, generosity. In The American Scene, when he visits New England in the autumn after 20 years abroad, Henry James suggests the immense solace, beauty, dignity and pathos of a forest, without indulging in nature mysticism:
“It might be an ado about trifles--and half the poetry, roundabout, the poetry in solution in the air, was doubtless but the alertness of the touch of autumn, the imprisoned painter, the Bohemian with a rusty jacket, who had already broken out with palette and brush; yet the way the colour begins in those days to be dabbed, the way, here and there, for a start, a solitary maple on a woodside flames in single scarlet, recalls nothing so much as the daughter of a noble house dressed for a fancy-ball, with the whole family gathered round to admire her before she goes.”
This amounts to a great Jamesian hurly-burly in the woods. Like a young woman “dressed for a fancy-ball,” a forest embodies hope – in the nitrogen cycle, in biological adaptation, in subsequent generations, in beauty. In the “Prologue” to his poem-in-progress “Time’s Covenant,” Eric Ormsby isn’t writing about trees. He’s visiting a one-time utopian settlement in Tennessee where his grandmother and her siblings grew up, but he expresses the way I feel when I go home and walk among the hopeful trees of childhood:
“I think I hoped to travel to another time
When there was still a future, when time lay
virginal and open and each chime
of the brass-bound mantel clock above the fire
echoed into a prospect of desire.
I wanted to taste the future when it was still
All future and still ours to spend...”