by Father Mark Goldasich
“I think that I shall never see…”
Do you recognize those words? Can you name where they come from? For extra credit: Who wrote them?
If you answered the above questions with “No,” “Mark My Words” and “Father Mark,” then I’ve got to give you a demerit and ask you to stay after class. If, on the other hand, your answers were “Yes,” “The poem, ‘Trees,’” and “Joyce Kilmer,” then go to the head of the class and get your gold star.
For a lot of us, “Trees” was one of the first poems we memorized in school. Kilmer was a popular figure in my grade school education. After all, he was a Catholic, an American, and died a hero — killed in action by a sniper in France toward the end of World War I.
My mind has been a shade too preoccupied with trees the past few days. It started when we received a book for possible review at the Leaven office. It was sitting on managing editor Anita McSorley’s desk and its title immediately caught my eye: “PersonaliTrees.” Written by Joan Klostermann-Ketels, it’s a short book, filled with pictures of trees on one side and a descriptive word describing that tree — playful, diplomatic, frightened, wounded, chivalrous — on the other. The back cover of the book states: “Have you ever taken a walk, looked at a tree and had it look back at you? You just had an encounter with a PersonaliTree.” To be honest, I was a little creeped out at the thought of trees watching me and had an uneasy feeling that night as I headed out to my car at the church offices. (Are you listening, Stephen King?)
Then, in Monday’s Kansas City Star, the front page of the FYI section featured pictures of 10 different trees. There, writer James Fussell challenged readers to “go out on a limb” and match the name of the tree to its picture. (I didn’t do so well on the quiz. Surprisingly, none of the trees had the name that I usually call them by: “Ooohhh, pretty.”)
A glance at the calendar told me what was fueling all this interest in trees: The last Friday in April is National Arbor Day. Usually, I’m about as likely to celebrate that as I am to observe April as National Anxiety Month or National Sports Eye Safety Month. (I’m not making this up.)
I did, however, decide to do a little digging and uncover the roots of National Arbor Day. Back in 1854, a pioneer by the name of J. Sterling Morton moved from Detroit to the Nebraska Territory. There, he and other pioneers lamented the lack of trees in their new home. Morton decided to do something about it. Because he and his wife loved nature, they began to plant trees, shrubs and flowers on their property. Being a journalist by trade, Morton wrote about his passion for trees and was eventually able to get a tree-planting holiday established in Nebraska on April 10, 1872. It’s said that some one million trees were planted on that day alone.
Echoing the sentiments of St. Francis of Assisi and anticipating the voices of later generations who would mark Earth Day, Morton said, “Each generation takes the earth as trustees.” In other words, we are all called to be good stewards of this world that God created and that we inhabit.
Someone who has a healthy respect for trees is Father Ed Hays from our archdiocese. Included in his 1983 book, “The Ethiopian Tattoo Shop,” is a delightful story called “Hanna’s Harmonica.” There, the voice of God says: “I like trees. Their branches reach up, touching the heavens, and their roots are sunk deep, deep down in the dark earth. I’m like that, Hanna, half
in the earth and half in the heavens. My trees also do the best job of preaching my most important lesson. They are living gospels of summer, autumn, winter and spring. Each winter they die only to come to life again in the spring. Think about that, Hanna, ‘cause I’m letting you in on one of the best kept secrets in all history.”
Maybe it’s high time for us to take the lid off of this secret by celebrating Arbor Day. On its Web site — www. arborday.org — the Arbor Day Foundation suggests some good ways to do this. Most obviously, plant a tree. But if you have a “brown thumb” like me, it might be safer to look at other options, like visiting a park, taking a nature walk, or trying to identify the trees in your yard or neighborhood. And, if you’re looking to buy something for a person who has everything, why not give a tree as a gift? The Web site will show you how.
Rather than taking them for granted, notice the trees that grace your world. And, let’s remember, as Joyce Kilmer reminded us, that “only God can make a tree.”