“I think that I shall never see…”

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Joyce Kilmer wrote the poem “Trees” in 1913. It’s a lyrical poem, often quoted (mostly only the first two lines: “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree”) and considered a good memorizing challenge for grade schoolers. I believe in its premise however rhymey and sing-songey it sounds.

Trees are my favorite flora. I’d rather look at a tree than read a poem about one. I’ve spent a lifetime admiring them, wondering about them, thinking about living in them, looking up their uses and histories. Because I was always pointing out one interesting tree after another, a friend called me Druid. Druids were an ancient religious group of Celts in the British Isles who worshipped oak trees (drus is the Greek word for oak). Myths tell us they were teachers, advisors to royalty, historians, astrologers, doctors. I am none of those things but a worshipper.

The first American elm death happened in Cleveland in 1930. The killer blight is believed to have come into the country with an import of French lumber. Thousands, millions of American elms succumbed to the wilting disease easily because of how the roots of the elms lining the streets intertwined; they offered a guided tour to the plague traveling those subterranean paths, speeded along above ground by elm leaf beetles. They never stood a chance. Every town east of the Continental Divide planted these perfect trees in monoculture rows that made it so easy to share death with each other and all their relatives. In the brief span of 70 years, a plant genocide wiped out the elegant elm without our being able to lift a finger to stop it.

The 80- to 100-foot-tall elms had straight trunks, gracefully bowing branches and lofty rounded crowns way up there a foot and a half below heaven. They met each other across the streets of little towns and big cities from the eastern seaboard to the Rockies. Jefferson’s elms were there all my life, brave and stark all winter, shady and cool all summer. I sat to watch them from the window at the turn of the stairs and from my bedroom window. I played under them, climbed them now and then (their lowest branches were usually too high to get to), fielded my first kiss under one.

I moved away to California where there were no elms, and one summer in the early ‘70s returned for a visit . . . and Jefferson was a prairie town.

There were no stately elms along Chestnut Street where my family lived near the park, or on Oak where I grew up, or on Maple by my grandparents’ house. Is there one still on the Courthouse square? There used to be many. It was shocking, the sudden flatness of the town, the bare, denuded look, like an underdressed and weary family who had come upon hard times – a dustbowl, a depression. It was shocking.

The houses stared out to the street with their blank windows, no privacy anymore. A few sycamores were a blessing because they were tall and proudly handsome, there were oaks as strong as ever, happy specimens of various maples. But there were no more elms. Nor would there be.

New trees were planted along the parking, a variety this time – maples and lindens and redbuds and oaks of different varieties – red, shingle, pin, white; new trees I’d never heard of – redbuds and chinkapins, a hackberry. There were walnut trees staining the sidewalks with their nuts; there were boxelders – fun for climbing, like the maples; there were white pines and red pines – pretty, but I liked my trees deciduous, not evergreen. There was a magnolia as big as an airy bungalow in a side yard. Much of this newborn arboretum in my hometown grew to a kind of protective friendliness. The new trees offered shade and beauty, purpose. The streets no longer looked naked, the town appeared neatly dressed – maybe from Penney’s rather than Macy’s; still, spiffier.

But it was the elms and the marching abundance of them that had entranced. The very closeness of them to one another, their matching ranks that sheltered us all summer long: it was as if we planned the death of them.

Many decades later, I found a double elm by the river behind Daubendiek Park. I petted it and hugged it. Is there still a Dutch elm disease that might return, sneak up on that lonely sentinel and kill it also? The American chestnut was wiped out by a chestnut blight. There are rusts and wilts and scabs and mildews and cankers and leaf spot diseases that stalk through the tree world as lethally as the human diseases that find us wherever we are.

Trees and humans are alike in many other ways, from our upright statures, our arms and branches that wave, our circulatory systems, our ability to seem happy, to be giving, our standing proud – they rooted in deed, we rooted to our past even as we move on.

They are not mean, however.

I just read a truly good novel called The Overstory, by Richard Powers. It is about trees and their secret life of roots and leaves and sap. It is about the creeping loss of their hundred thousand species across the world. Many have died because of blight – the American elm that made Jefferson so splendid; an ash borer killer that’s already taking trees in Jefferson; a rumor of an oak disease moving from the West.

Many more trees disappear because entire forests are timbered out, some of them replanted with a pine monoculture that might be the death of them too. Overstory is a dramatic book with lovely writing and at least one word a chapter that needs to be looked up (my favorite kind of book).

The tree story is often sad, and more than a few times I became downright ticked off at the stupidity of us humans, that feeling of hopelessness that dogs us because we are us. But in the end, the book comforts with the fact that trees know a lot, they are wise. Trees may not save us, but they may be what saves our sanity. Until we are extinct, we will have the trees, the “branches combing the sun, laughing at gravity, still unfolding.”

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