The Importance of Names ~ The Trees


Neither my father nor my mother knew
the names of the trees
where I was born
what is that
I asked and my
father and mother did not
hear they did not look where I pointed
surfaces of furniture held
the attention of their fingers
and across the room they could watch
walls they had forgotten
where there were no questions
no voices and no shade
Were there trees where they were children
where I had not been
I asked
were there trees in those places
where my father and my mother were born
and in that time did
my father and my mother see them
and when they said yes it meant
they did not remember
What were they I asked what were they
but both my father and my mother
said they never knew
                                      “Native Trees” ~ W.S. Merwin

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on poet W.S. Merwin, please click here.

52 thoughts on “The Importance of Names ~ The Trees

    1. That caught me, too — along with “when they said yes it meant they did not remember.”
      I suspect every child in the world has encountered that kind of dismissiveness from an adult and reacted as the child in the poem reacted, asking twice without response, “What were they?”

  1. I wonder whether Merwin used “native” to refer more to the places where his parents were born—as in, this is my native land—than to the botanical sense of ‘growing naturally in a location, as opposed to having been brought into a region where it didn’t previously grow.’ Of course he might have meant both senses.

    1. My first thought was of the opening lines of Sir Walter Scott’s poem:
      “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
      Who never to himself hath said,
      This is my own, my native land!”

      It is interesting that when I think of the trees of my own childhood place, I think of them as willow, walnut, maple and elm. Merwin seems to be suggesting that particularities help to create a sense of place: a native land, so to speak.

      1. Among the prominent trees when I was growing up were two curbside maples that I used to climb. Decades later I learned they were Norway maples, and therefore not native in the botanical sense. In terms of memory, though, they remain “native” to my childhood.

    1. There’s a poignancy to the lines, isn’t there? Apart from the trees, I was caught by the reminder of how curious children can be about their parents’ lives before their children’s lives. Imagining a world before our birth or after our death can be intriguing, to say the least.

  2. Oh, how sad. To “see” Nature and not remember it seems as awful as not seeing it in the first place. My late dad was a treasure trove of information — on plants, bugs, birds, all sorts of nature-related things. It’s only one of the many reasons I miss him to this day! Mom, on the other hand, is like the parents in this poem — doesn’t really know, and doesn’t particularly care that she doesn’t. I’m more like Daddy (thankfully, ha!!)

    1. You and I have had the same kind of experience with our parents. My mother was much like yours; she had no time whatsoever for outdoor pursuits like camping and fishing, and no interest in nature. My dad was the curious one: the explorer and teacher. I miss him now myself. I know he’d love roaming the countryside with me. I’m so glad we both had those experiences with our dads — they certainly helped to form us.

  3. Parents are too busy sometimes and forget that their wee ones need answers, as this poem demonstrates. I like the graceful moss hanging. I guess it’s moss…?

    1. It is Spanish moss, hanging from a tree at Brazos Bend State Park. I didn’t have to go far to find it. When I pulled into my parking space, it was right in front of me, beautifully draped from the tree.

      For some reason, this poem reminded me of two children I watched in a restaurant recently. They might have been about five and eight, and they were full of questions. They kept tugging at their parents, asking this or that, while the parents kept brushing them off in order to stay focused on their phones. I fear that experience is all too common today.

    1. That’s so true, and such a good insight. I daresay none of the children and youth in your family ever will have the poet’s experience: or, if they do, it will be fleeting.

  4. Made me tear up. Interestingly, in my family the generations were switched. Mom and Dad were naming the trees, flowers, birds, clouds and geological strata… and we kids were whining, Turn up the radio! One of my regrets is that it took me 60 years to hear them. But now I hear them everywhere, and listen with love.

    1. Over the years, I’ve been intrigued by the way I seem to continue learning from my father, particularly. I’m not one who believes he’s literally speaking from the hereafter, as one of my friends claims about her mother, I do suspect that much of what I didn’t hear when I was whining to turn up the radio somehow became embedded in my subconscious. Now, it emerges from time to time as sudden interest or insight. However it works, when nature connects the generations, it’s a wonderful thing.

  5. Being a parent is the most challenging and most rewarding experience we shall ever have. Learning to listen to a child requires practice and a whole lot of patience. We didn’t always get it right, but when we did our children taught us so much! (They are still doing so in our seventh decade.)

    1. Learning to listen to anyone requires that same patience and practice. The best parents develop the art: so do the best friends, and the best teachers. Now, if only we could convince some of our politicians and bureaucrats that they could profit from the same approach.

    1. I still remember my first days of roaming with a camera. Then, my basic distinction was between “pretty flower” and “not so pretty flower.” Eventually, I realized the same holds true for flowers as for people: it’s hard to introduce one to another if you don’t know their name!

  6. That is beautiful writing by W. S. Merwin. It brought to mind a song by Tom Paxton, “The Names of Trees”. I believe it was written about his father who had dementia and could not remember the names of trees anymore.

  7. It’s a very good poem, the way it captures the mystifying lack of interest on the part of other people, of things we ourselves find fascinating and lovable. I don’t recall my parents ever speaking to me about plants and nature, though I know my father at least was very interested in many things and kept a mental storehouse of knowledge. He loved the outdoors, and was a farmer who loved nature.

    I have pondered about how different my own style of parenting has been from my parents. I wanted to share the discoveries my children made of plants and bugs and birds, and to start them off early naming everything we could find the name of. Maybe some of us are born teachers, and others mostly keep counsel with themselves?

    Not speaking of the parents in the poem, who must not have learned about the trees from their parents, and it all gets unfathomably sadder and sadder the more I think about it.

    1. It seems odd and inexplicable to me that so many people who argue incessantly about a variety of nature-related issues (species loss, environmental degradation, climate change, and so on) don’t seem to have an ounce of affection for the natural world. People generally seek to nurture and preserve what they love, so an early first step ought to be instilling a love of nature in our young ones — as you so clearly do. But even there, proper introductions are important, and to make an introduction, we have to know a name: whether of a person or a flower. Learning to know those names isn’t a chore; it’s a gift!

      1. I have some theories about the reasons for this lack of affection, as you call it. Your comments have now added some more grist to my mill, and prompt me to dig up an old blog draft where I was once trying to write myself into understanding better…

  8. If you do not know the names of trees, then you do not think about the lives of trees, where they live, how they go about their days. It is partly that uncaring ignorance that has gotten the world in the shape it’s in. A life that is too narrow for the natural world around it is a sad, small life.

    1. There are plenty of people who see nature only as ‘landscape’ — a background for their selfies — or as a source of unwelcome interruption to their lives: the ‘bad’ weather forecast, the lizard in the living room. They forget that we’re part of nature, too, and it would well behoove us to get to know our neighbors.

  9. I can’t imagine living somewhere and not being interested in knowing the names of the other living beings that share the space. I used to carry my grandkids around the yard when they were little naming everything. I know of course that none of it was retained except maybe, hopefully, an awareness of them.

    1. You might be surprised how much was retained. And even if the names weren’t, awareness and appreciation are much harder to develop. Just recently, a garden-blogger finally identified for me a shrub I grew up with and loved. In childhood, I never knew its name. Eventually, scanning through photos suggested it might be ‘flowering almond,’ and she confirmed it for me. It probably was Prunus triloba, but not knowing the common or scientific name never dulled my memory of the plant — or my love of it.

  10. While my parents did take us into nature by way of picnics they never did seem all that much interested in nature itself. Part of my childhood was spent amusing myself in the Adirondacks where my grandparents had a cabin and we stayed during summers. But neither parents nor grands spent any time teaching or exploring with my brother and me. It was a pleasant place to spend time but no one seemed interested in just what was happening out there. I am not sure if that falls into the same experience Merwin writes of because I did not try to get them involved but any knowledge and appreciation of nature came later in life without any parental guidance. Different priorities I guess but a loss for all concerned.
    I love the light on the draping spanish moss and its curve.

    1. I had been hanging on to that photo of the moss-draped tree for use on Halloween, but decided it worked well here. Doesn’t the moss look rather like a ghost floating through the trees?

      Oddly, it was sailing that began to develop my interest in nature, and my observational skills. Wind and water were my world in those years, and understanding both was critical. Learning to ‘read’ the water and feel coming wind changes took time, but once I stopped sailing and began ‘land cruising,’ I realized they were transferable skills.

  11. I’m very fortunate. My father spent a lot of time out in nature and he loved learning about it. Now when I go on hikes with him he teaches me the names of all the trees (or at least the ones he recognizes from where he grew up). Beautiful photo, by the way.

    1. Every time you post about another outing with your father, I smile. It’s a wonderful thing to share interests with friends, and even more special to be able to share them with a parent. Did your father grow up in the same area that you explore together now? That would be especially nice.

      Believe it or not, I took that photo at the edge of a parking lot, so it didn’t require much exploration. I just opened the car door, and there it was. I especially liked the drape of the moss. The next time I’m there, I’ll have to figure out the identity of the supporting tree!

      1. As my father has mentioned to me, looking back it would have been nice if we’d started hiking together much sooner, but better late than never. He grew up further north, in New Hampshire. There are many species that survive in both locations but also a great many that either are not common or don’t exist in one area or the other. It’s nice in that there’s still more for him to explore and learn and he can compare with those he knows and relate stories of his youth.

        I love when we find a scene that might express a wild and vibrant natural location but is actually right off a road or in the middle of a town. Granted, it’d be nice to be out in a wild and vibrant natural location, but not all of us can do that and it’s great to be reminded there is still much to see just about anywhere we find ourselves.

        1. One of my favorite quotations is from the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, who once said,
          “I spent the summer traveling; I got halfway across my back yard.” In the same vein, there’s a wonderful book by the same folks I’ve used as my go-to for butterfly ID. It’s called Nature at Your Doorstep,, and it’s on my wishlist. It occurs to me that it might make a fine Christmas gift for your dad! There’s a nice preview on the page I linked, with the full index and some samples of their writing.

  12. A poetic way of Mom saying, “ask your Dad,” followed by Dad saying, “ask your Mom.” But another poet might say, “A rose by any other name…”

    1. I laughed at that mom/dad dynamic. I remember that well from my teenaged years, although it usually took place when I was nagging to go here or there with my friends. As for that rose: of course that’s true. On the other hand, once a name’s become associated with a given flower, the ‘wrong’ name can’t evoke the scent. Say ‘lilac’ to me, or gardenia, and the words themselves seem to carry the scent as surely as the flowers.

  13. I read your comments about your dad with interest. My dad loved nature, but I don’t remember him telling me the names of things, although he surely must have done when I was young. He was a teacher. I do remember him often telling me to look it up if I asked him anything. I have his old book on trees by my bedside.

    1. So much learning takes place outside formal classrooms, and a good bit of learning for children involves osmosis and imitation. I have a few of my own father’s things that I cherish, too. In my case, it’s a pair of worn work gloves, his stamp tongs, and some well-preserved hand tools. I don’t remember a thing now about how to play cribbage, but I still have the board that we used for years. All of those things go with me when I evacuate for hurricanes.

    1. So-called ‘development’ can cover a good bit, but the signs of the past are there for the attentive walker. And, to be honest, there always are signs of the future, too: future growth, future blooms, and future ‘developments’ from nature herself.

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