Guest Post by Angela Sorby
Arbor Day is on April 25th this year, but its—um—roots trace back to 1872, when the journalist J. Sterling Morton organized schoolchildren to plant a million trees in the State of Nebraska. By the turn of the century, tree-planting had become a political issue; as Theodore Roosevelt put it to Congress, “If there is any one duty which more than another we owe it to our children and our children’s children to perform at once, it is to save the forests of this country.” By framing this problem in terms of children, both Morton and Roosevelt added emotional weight to an economic issue: timber companies were destroying vast swaths of the continent’s trees for their own “reckless” gains. But why should anyone care? What was the value of forests, if not as a source of building materials?
Both Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a teenage Edna St. Vincent Millay tackled this question, producing children’s poems that were ultimately used to promote Arbor Day and that mark the power—but also the surprising fragility—of trees.
I wonder if they like it—being trees?
I suppose they do . . . .
It must feel good to have the ground so flat,
And feel yourself stand right straight up like that—
So stiff in the middle—and then branch at ease,
Big boughs that arch, small ones that bend and blow,
And all those fringy leaves that flutter so.
You’d think they’d break off at the lower end
When the wind fills them, and their great heads bend.
But then you think of all the roots they drop,
As much at bottom as there is on top,—
A double tree, widespread in earth and air
Like a reflection in the water there.
I guess they like to stand still in the sun
And just breathe out and in, and feel the cool sap run;
And like to feel the rain run through their hair
And slide down to the roots and settle there.
But I think they like wind best. From the light touch
That lets the leaves whisper and kiss so much,
To the great swinging, tossing, flying wide,
And all the time so stiff and strong inside!
And the big winds, that pull, and make them feel
How long their roots are, and the earth how leal!
And O the blossoms! And the wild seeds lost!
And jeweled martyrdom of fiery frost!
And fruit trees. I’d forgotten. No cold gem,
But to be apples—and bow down with them!
Gilman’s famous feminist polemic, Women and Economics, uses the principles of evolution to argue that civilization can only progress if women achieve economic self-sufficiency. Likewise, in her extraordinary children’s poem, Gilman celebrates the scientific miracle of a tree that can simultaneously sustain itself (drinking through its roots), experience passion (through kissing leaves) and ultimately produce offspring in the form of apples.
“Tree Feelings” became a standard recitation piece at Arbor Day celebrations in the early twentieth century—and no wonder, because it offers the perfect fusion of romantic empathy and scientific respect. On the one hand, child and adult readers are encouraged to find the beauty in the tree’s branches—“swinging, tossing, flying wide”—but on the other hand, they are invited to study the complex physiology of root systems. The concept of Arbor Day sometimes reduced a complex problem (deforestation) to a simple solution (“plant a tree!”), but Gilman’s poem undercuts and resists easy environmental bromides. Rather, in keeping with her broad sense of the environment as an interconnected social and natural web, Gilman imagines trees to be independent and dependent, beautiful and strong, stiff and flexible, eternal and yet ever-changing. Gilman’s trees thus become models for human (and especially female) self-sufficiency without surrendering their essential otherness and mystery: I wonder if they like it, being trees?
Monarchs of long-forgotten realms, ye stand;
Unscarred by Time’s destructive hand.
Enthroned on dais of velvet moss, inset
With the royal purple of the violet;
And crowned with mistletoe.
How many ages o’er your heads have flown,
To you is known—
To you, ye forest-founders of the past, alone.
No other eyes may scan the breadth of years,
Each with its share of peace, and joy, and tears;
Of happiness and woe.
Around you all is changed—where now is land
Swift vessels ploughed to foam the seething main;
Kingdoms have risen; and the fire-fiend’s hand
Has crushed them to their Mother Earth again;
And through it all ye stand, and still will stand
Till ages yet to come have owned your reign.
“Forest Trees” by “Vincent Millay” (as she then signed her name) was published in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1906, when she was 14 years old. The poem was in response to a prompt; children were to send poems of no more that 24 lines containing the word “forest.” St. Nicholas magazine was committed to forest conservation, in keeping with its educational mission to train good citizens. Indeed, the same St. Nicholas volume that invited forest poems also featured a humorous Arbor Day story, complete with a tree-planting and poetry-recitation scene.
Like Gilman’s “Tree Feelings,” “Forest Trees” reflects a turn-of-the-century sense that endings and extinctions are possible and that the environment—and forests in particular—should be actively preserved on merits that go beyond the strictly commercial. Millay’s poem thus registers a larger cultural push to teach children (in “ages yet to come) to value living trees over logged timber. Promoting environmental awareness—as the founders of Arbor Day and publishers of St. Nicholas well knew—required not just factual information but also poetry. “Tree Feelings” and “Forest Trees” reminded (and continue to remind) readers that nature has a value—a beauty, a music, a feeling—that can be evoked, and perhaps defended, through the medium of verse.
Angela Sorby is an associate professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. The two poems in this post, along with many others, can be found in Over the River and Through the Wood, a book coedited by Angela Sorby and Karen L. Kilcup, published by Johns Hopkins Press.