Do Trees Look Like Us?

And is that a reason to save them?

Posted May 11, 2018

Patricia Prijatel
Evergreens that survive a forest fire often over-produce pinecones to create seeds for other trees that burned and can no longer propagate. 
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Like many third graders of my era, I had to memorize Joyce Kilmer’s Trees. I worked mightily on it, practicing it over and over in front of the bathroom mirror, and I had it nailed—until I had to present in class. When I stood in front of my classmates, all I could remember were the final two lines: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” After three attempts, I still could not get myself back to the beginning and Sister Mary Third Grade Teacher told me, gently, to just sit down. 

I was, of course, mortified. I figured everybody in third grade knew I was a dunce. As it turned out, though, they really didn't care. They weren’t even paying attention—they were either too worried about their own recitations still to come, or bathing in relief that their turn was over. And I have no idea how any of them did because, of course, I wasn't paying attention to them either. They might have been equally mortified, for all I knew.

My kids didn't have to go through this memorization of a lovely, but somewhat mediocre, poem, and my grandkids are certainly spared. But the experience left its mark on me.

I still think of that poem as I walk through canopies of trees, as I do as often as I can. I am sure it is not the basis of my love for forests, but it is a decent accompanying narrative.

So when I read a remarkable new novel about trees and climate change, I once again thought of Joyce Kilmer. The novel, The Overstory, has as its theme the reality that we are on a destructive path on the planet and much of it stems from our abuse of our forests. Those who live and study among the trees understand their importance to our health and the health of the Earth, but those who sit in boardrooms and office buildings often see trees only as commodities—something to use or destroy, depending on what makes the most money. 

And, the book’s author, Richard Powers, makes clear, the losers in this battle are the humans fighting nature. Nature will survive in some form, but if we destroy a habitable planet, well that’s pretty much it for us.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book, though, is the contention that people want to save trees because they look—and act—like us.  This idea has popped up before—that because trees have trunks like us, branches for arms, and knotholes that can look like eyes, they are, therefore, like us in other ways.

But the connection between us and trees is real, and it is important. Trees “bleed” when cut and communicate with one another, even reaching out to help a friend in crisis. After a forest fire, for example, remaining trees overproduce pinecones to create seeds for the trees that no longer can propagate themselves.

The idea that trees are like us, according to one of The Overstory's characters, is one way of making climate change deniers see the planet differently and perhaps to convince them that trees are worth making sacrifices for.

Kilmer's poem personified trees in a way that resonated with young readers, writing of their hungry mouths, their hair full of robins’ nests, their snow-covered bosoms and their gaze toward the heavens. Through it, a generation of early baby boomers were taught to see trees not as just objects to use, but as our natural cousins. As, like us, God's creations. Some of us remembered that lesson, even if we didn't remember all the lines of the poem.

If seeing trees as people helps us protect our forest, that’s a discussion well worth having. Toward that end,  maybe kids need to learn that little poem again.  

READ MORE ABOUT NATURE AND CLIMATE CHANGE:

We're Not Telling the Full Story of Natural Disasters: We need to believe everything will be OK, but survivors have a different take.

When the natural world is damaged, so are we. Disrupting nature turns a health benefit into a toxic risk.