An Elegy for Trees

Wednesday, May 3, 2017 - 5:00 am

An Elegy for Trees

Some of you will wonder what took me so long, but in recent years I’ve developed a deep appreciation for trees.

I used to take trees for granted. But these days I know that sitting in their presence for a while will leave me refreshed and renewed. I wonder if trees photosynthesize the soul as well as sunlight?!

Part of what calls to me is the complexity and beauty of trees. As Annie Dillard wrote, if you want to understand how complex a tree is, try making a scale model of one! As for beauty, few sights can rival yellow leaves dancing in the wind against the backdrop of a “blue true dream of sky,” to quote e.e. cummings.

But most of all, I’m drawn to trees because of something W.S. Merwin says in this lovely poem — the way they slowly and quietly cycle through the seasons “as though nothing had happened” while our individual and collective lives whirl madly around them.

Contemplating a tree with more than a few years on it helps me regain perspective on the events of my life — the good stuff and the hard stuff — that I can too easily inflate beyond their true importance in the scheme of things.

Memo to self: Log more tree-time! (Pun intended…)

(W.S. Merwin received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2009, and was named the 17th U.S. Poet Laureate in 2010. He’s 89 and still writing beautifully, especially about the passage of time.)

Elegy for a Walnut Tree
by W.S. Merwin

Old friend now there is no one alive
who remembers when you were young
it was high summer when I first saw you
in the blaze of day most of my life ago
with the dry grass whispering in your shade
and already you had lived through wars
and echoes of wars around your silence
through days of parting and seasons of absence
with the house emptying as the years went their way
until it was home to bats and swallows
and still when spring climbed toward summer
you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers
of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened
you and the seasons spoke the same language
and all these years I have looked through your limbs
to the river below and the roofs and the night
and you were the way I saw the world

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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  • Ann Romberg

    As I read your elegy to trees I remembered an profound soul enriching event with a tree from my early years (I am 65 now). When I was 20, I was struggling with a lowness I now suspect was the early stages of depression. I lived in an apartment near Drake University campus that had a small park nearby. I’m not sure what drew me there, but I walked to the park and was drawn to sit under a large tree. I cried and thought about what I was unhappy about. As I sat there and the tears dried, I suddenly felt a lifting of the gloom, the cloud that was surrounding me. It was a shift I hadn’t ever felt before and as I learned more about the energy of trees I learned that they can have this effect on us. Thank you for helping me remember!

  • “I wonder if trees photosynthesis the soul as well as sunlight?” I think you’ve summed up my love of trees! Even on the worst day, I can seek a tree and feel connected to better things. Beautiful!