The Language of Trees

Kansas cottonwoods in fall


Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn
The language of the trees.  That’s done indoors,
Out of a book, which now you think of it
Is one of the transformations of a tree.
The words themselves are a delight to learn.
You might be in a foreign land of terms
Like samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome,
Where bark is papery, plated, warty or smooth.
But best of all are the words that shape the leaves —
Orbicular, cordate, cleft and reniform —
And their venation — palmate, and parallel —
And tips — acute, truncate, auriculate.
Sufficiently provided, you may now
Go forth to the forests and shady streets
To see how the chaos of experience
Answers to catalogue and category.
Confusedly.  The leaves of a single tree
May differ among themselves more than they do
From other species, so you have to find,
All blandly says the book, “an average leaf.”
Example, the catalpa in the book
Sprays out its leaves in whorls of three
Around the stem; the one in front of you
But rarely does, or somewhat, or almost;
Maybe it’s not catalpa?  Dreadful doubt.
It may be weeks before you see an elm
Fanlike in form, a spruce that pyramids,
A sweetgum spiring up in steeple shape.
Still, pedetemtim as Lucretius says,
Little by little, you do start to learn;
And learn as well, maybe, what language does
And how it does it, cutting across the world
Not always at the joints, competing with
Experience while cooperating with
Experience, and keeping an obstinate
Intransigence, uncanny, of its own.
Thinking finally about the secret will
Pretend obedience to Nature, but
Invidiously distinguishing everywhere,
Dividing up the world to conquer it,
And think also how funny knowledge is:
You may succeed in learning many trees
And calling off their names as you go by,
But their comprehensive silence stays the same.
                       “Learning Trees” ~ Howard Nemerov

Comments always are welcome. For more information on poet Howard Nemerov, click here.


46 thoughts on “The Language of Trees

    1. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s my opinion that the poem itself gets unnecessarily complex in places, but there’s a lot in it that reflects my experience. Besides, in the end, his point seems to be much the same as yours: we may learn the names, but those names never will contain the mystery.

      1. I seem to always get all tangled up in the details that aid in the identification of plants. (A habit that I need to break.) I often wish that I had some formal education in botany.

        1. I certainly understand that tangled-up feeling. I still remember what a relief it was when the fellow who led our grass identification workshop said, “We’re going to help you identify to the level of genus, since many of the species require specialized techniques to achieve a certain ID.” As a long-time prairie lover once said, “Spp. is our friend!”

      2. And there is so much to learn! If I could only retain more of the system of classification then I might be able to at least say, “This looks like it is such-and-such family,” but as it is, I have to be content with that Mystery most of the time. :-) Trees are a great gift in any case and I’m grateful for this poem!

        1. And it’s true that we can build on what we know. That’s why experience — like yours in your garden — is so important. If we learn about what’s right in front of us, it can help witih what we find later. I’ve found that with the “darned yellow composites.” I may not know what one is, but now I can say with some certainty, “Well, it certainly isn’t this, or this, or this.”

  1. There’s the textbook and then actuality. Not always the same obviously.
    In the past decade I’ve moved away from the naming of things, even though I can see the merit in it for some.
    Beautiful light on those golden leaves, and I almost hear them rustling.

    1. Appreciation and understanding walk hand-in-hand. Without names, it would be far harder to talk about the rich complexity of the world around us. “Cottonwood” calls to mind the Kansas rivers in a way that “tree” doesn’t, and “Dixie Rose” brings a specific creature to mind far more vividly than “cat.”

      Of course the technical terms can’t contain the fullness of experience, but I still get a kick out of learning them. It’s just a different way of knowing. Heck — even Jim Croce paid tribute to names, once upon a time.

      1. It seems unlikely that one could love a thing truly and not want to know its name, and/or know enough about it to at least distinguish it from others and recognize it when you meet… but that’s my current perspective of a person who’s been lucky enough to have leisure for that kind of activity, and children to whom I felt it my responsibility and delight to introduce to our fellow creatures. Knowing their names and often learning more about whoever or whatever it is makes me love it more.

        I remember, though, an earlier time when trees and flowers were only a vague if generally pretty background to my life that seems at this point to have been so small, without their acquaintance.

        1. I’ve often thought about, those days when my basic distinction was between “Oh, pretty flower!” and everything else. It’s been a slow learning process, but it’s been immensely satisfying. I certainly have no way of proving this, but it also seems to me that once I know a flower’s identity, I see it more often. Perhaps it’s the time spent with the books trying to establish a firm identification that makes it so familiar. In any case, I love knowing the flowers as “this” or “that,” rather than as a pretty blob of yellow or a sweet purple blur.

  2. Gorgeous photo, Linda. There’s something about the light coming through the leaves that has the power to take my breath away, whenever I see a beautiful tree at just the right time of day.

    1. And even though the greens and golds of spring are lovely, there’s nothing like autumn color. These trees were out in the middle of western Kansas, near Monument Rocks, in an area that was mostly rock, yucca, and grasses. To see them hovering over a tiny stream was remarkable, and the fact that the gravel road I was on cut right through the middle of the half-dozen or so trees was even moreso.

    1. That’s a great article. There seems to have been more and more attention paid to the way plants generally communicate, and I think it’s clear that phrases like “the language of trees” are more than only metaphors.

      Many years ago, my mother had several African violets that were in the process of dying. She was going to throw them out, so I brought them home. Different light and more regular watering perked them right up, but they still didn’t look really full. Then, a friend told me to shove the pots together so their leaves touched, and they didn’t feel so lonely. I told her she was a crazy woman, but I did it. Sure enough, those violets took off and bloomed for years. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe not.

  3. Trees must find us dreadful chatterboxes! It’s interesting how in our wish to break that comprehensive silence cultures have created tree spirits, dryads, and even talking trees (Narnia). I think we must recognize some vital essence in them which is akin to our own. It’s a fascinating poem.

    1. Gallivanta,
      Until I read your word “chatterbox” in comparing our behavior to that of trees, I didn’t think about how merely being self-consciously silent in their presence might help us appreciate our communion.

      1. Yes silent with just a light hand on a trunk or near a root should work beautifully. At my elementary school there was a large shady tree with a beautiful network of exposed roots. That was my resting place at break time. I loved it.

      2. Have you read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek? I think you’d find it a wonderful read, filled with congenial musings. Another of hers I appreciate is Teaching A Stone To Talk. I suspect the process is nearly as difficult as teaching a human being to listen.

    2. Right now, I’m enjoying the morning at my cousin’s home in Kansas City, and the view from her fourth floor condo is all trees. Those trees are filled with birds, and it crossed my mind to wonder whether birds might be bilingual: speaking their birdy dialect, but also the language of trees. Given the amount of chirping and singing I hear, it’s possible the trees find the birds chatterboxes, too. I’m just happy to have robins around me. They’re the iconic bird of my Iowa childhood, and seeing and hearing them again in wholly wonderful.

      I do love the poem: not only for what it says about trees, but also for the way it describes the learning process. It brings to mind that quotation from Wittgenstein that I’ve always enjoyed: “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.”. Every word is a key that unlocks another bit of reality.

  4. I guess I’ll always be grateful to the teacher who insisted we make a leaf collection as a tangible way to learn to recognize trees. I balked at the time, but even today, Domer marvels that I “know” as many different varieties of trees as I do. Sadly, they didn’t have to collect leaves. He maintains he can find out as much as he needs online; I argue there’s something to be said for involving ALL one’s senses in learning. Kids these days! Oh, lovely photo and I enjoyed the poem, too.

    1. We collected leaves, too. My favorite activity was pressing them between sheets of waxed paper. I suppose it’s possible kids today don’t know what waxed paper is. I certainly agree with you that involving all the senses is important in learning. Beyond that, while there are wonderful resources online, more and more I’m making myself turn to them only after depending a bit on my own brain, or books, or other ways of finding information. For one thing, the “answers” that we find online often are wrong as wrong can be — like spellcheck run amok. Who needs that?

  5. The Kansas cottonwood belongs to the poplar family. I thought as much but could not resist looking it up.
    Not all poplars get those glorious autumn colours. We have a giant cotton wood tree near us. It sheds its cotton-like flowers like snow in spring and covers the street below it in white. Right now the tree is bare, allowing winter to give rest to its branches. Soon the first of buds will pop up. It always changes which is delightful to watch.

    1. You’re right about some poplars being a bit more plain. We had a row of them along the edge of our property in Iowa, and when fall came, they mosty shriveled up and fell off.

      While in Kansas over our Memorial Day weekend, I had a chance to see cottonwood fluff in its full glory. It was everywhere: really thick, and fun to see.It’s nice to think that you’ve seen that, too. Every season has its delights, and its a fact that the trees contribute to them as much as any plants.

  6. Beautiful colors. Cottonwoods sometimes get a bad rap, but they’re lovely and the sound the breeze makes through the leaves, cooling and restful

    1. There was a good bit of cottonwood conversation in Kansas City last weekend — the fluff was everywhere, and not everyone was enthused. Still, I rather enjoyed the sight, although I was happy I didn’t have to try and varnish in those conditions. It’s enough contending with the various sorts of thistle and such that float around our area.

    1. The Nemerov poem you linked is as appealing to me as this one. I saved it, and some day may make use of it, as well. I’ve been so impressed with the trees this trip. In past years, I’ve tried to schedule my trips to catch fall color, but there’s something wonderful about the walls of green that trees create in the spring mountains.It gives a more positive slant to the old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees.

  7. Also, this post reminds me that you might be interested in ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers. It’s about trees–and other living things–written in short story style, with separate, but interweaving stories. Just like trees. :)

  8. I always think the breeze is the language of trees. The more we learn the more we realize we don’t know. I did enjoy this poem and that wonderful

    1. Funny — your comment about the breeze being the language of the trees took me straight back to my first raeding of Heidi when I was a child. The description of her sitting outside her grandfather’s house in the mountains, listening to the wind in the pine trees, never has left me.

      The photo is one of my favorites from that trip. I didn’t see as much of the traditional fall color as I’d hoped to that year, but this small grouping of trees fairly glowed, and was quite enough.

  9. I am always curious to know the names of trees and flowers and rocks and birds. I like to be able to look at a track and know what animal left it behind, or scat. But the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves or needles and how it moves about and changes from a gentle whisper to a sustained roar, or the pungent taste of red fir, or the rough feel of bark, or the the scampering of a tree squirrel, gracefully leaving from limb to limb; all of these and much more are about the language of trees as well, Linda. Thanks for reminding me. –Curt

    1. There are different ways of knowing, and each has its place. I’ve always found the distinction between “knowing about” and “knowing” useful. Learning the terminology and the facts can provide objective knowledge, but living in relationship lets us understand on a wholly different level. What really intrigues me is that the more I’ve learned about native plants, rocks, trees, and so on, the more quickly and easily I can see them in the landscape. Perhaps the philosophers of language have it exactly right: what we can’t name, we can’t see.

      1. Interesting, Linda. I am poring through my field ID books now. I must have 40 altogether. My goal is to prepare myself for the trek and remind myself of what I have forgotten. The books are too heavy to carry.
        I agree on knowing names enhances seeing. The trick is to take it to the next level. For instance, I am always fascinated to learn how the native Americans and early pioneers perceived plants. Which were food, which were medicine, which were poisonous, which could be turned into useful items, like arrows. –Curt

        1. Absolutely. I’m back home now, and just catching up with your posts, but I’ll be by shortly. Believe me — it’s too danged hot to be working outside right now. As one of my boatworking colleagues says, “Semi-retirement means being able to take summer afternoons off!”

          1. I’ll find a nice shade tree, and possibly a creek to dangle my feet in. Wet T-shirts are a plus. I use that trick at Burning Man. Plus I’ll have my journal to keep up, photos to review, and at least one good book to read. Life could be worse. :) Life will be much simpler. In fact it doesn’t get much simpler. –Curt

  10. Seeing the yellows, oranges and greens of the leaves with the dark browns of the trunks against the blue of the sky, I think of how in fashion the “earth tones” would clash with the blue of the sky, and the dictum that blue and brown should never be worn together, and yet Mother Nature wears those colors all the time. (My keyboard is old and full of crumbs, and the “n” key can be balky. When I was typing the previous sentence, I looked up and saw I had typed “earth toes.” That made me smile.)

    1. I don’t remember hearing that blue and brown don’t belong together, but it’s only been in recent years that I’ve found myself drawn to that combination. I grew up convinced that green and blue didn’t “fit.” My dear grandmother took care of that when she pointed out that the sky and the trees actually looked rather good together.

      The phrase “earth toes” brings a vision of trees scrunching their roots into the dirt just like a kid scrunching its toes into the sand at the beach.

  11. A very fine photo you have posted. The colors are stunning. Loved the poem. So accurate. Trees are so life giving in so many ways. I think many folks take them for granted but where would be all be if it were not for trees?

    1. I’m so glad you like it, Yvonne. It’s one of my favorites from that trip. Trees certainly are life-giving. Now that the heat of summer has arrived, I remember how much difference a good shade tree can make. We used to churn ice cream and fix cars underneath trees (remember the phrase “shade tree mechanic?) and I surely do wish I could varnish my boats under a tree. It would be ever so much more pleasant!

      1. Yes, I remember shade tree mechanic and I still hear the term now and then. It would be great if you could put up a tent of some kind that would provide at least some shade when you are working.

        1. There are some ways to find shade, but tarps and such are more trouble than they’re worth, since i’m constantly moving from one spot to another. A little gentle grumping usually makes me feel better!

  12. I’m fond of the line “how the chaos of experience / Answers to catalogue and category.” While the many technical terms botanists use to describe and classify plants have their uses, they can clutter—say boggle if you like—the mind. Mine’s often been boggled.

    1. I enjoyed that line, too. After I’d read it a few times, I found myself imagining Experience taunting Catalogue and Category, saying, “Catch me if you can!” It’s as though Nemerov’s suggesting the truth of the trees never can be reduced to the facts about the trees.

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