Sometimes a tune gets stuck in my head, and I find myself singing the song over and over again. Today I was happily singing, “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree…”
The poem “Trees” was written by Joyce Kilmer, and put to music by Oscar Rasbach in 1922. Singing that song resurrected memories of the tropical trees in our garden in Bombay, India when I was growing up, a long, long time ago.
As my mind’s eye now travels around that garden, I can see the tall coconut tree, and trees laden with fruit: guava, mango, papaya, chickoo, jackfruit, custard apple, and pomegranate. I was in a paradise, and never knew it!
Being an adventurous child, I got into one situation after another, much to the concern of my mother. The guava tree enticed me to climb up its sturdy limbs and peer out between the branches at the world below. There I could munch on the juicy fruit in peace, till I was discovered.
That tree happened to extend over the flat-topped garage, so onto it I would jump with great joy. From that perch I often leaned over and “stole” the ‘love apples’ from the neighbor’s tree. I was not a monkey, but jumping from tree to tree was exciting.
When I arrived in North America, my first glimpse of a maple tree with its multi-colors in the Fall, forced me to stop on campus and exclaim in delight.
I watched the trees slowly going bare, falling asleep in the winter, waking up in the Spring, and waving wildly in the summer breezes. The way the branches of the trees bent and swayed, offering shade and shelter, and witnessing the seasons of life was truly poetic to me.
As I went on singing the lyrics, “…A tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray…” made me think of some significant biblical stories that have happened around trees. Stepping into the Garden of Eden in Genesis, the trees there, were “pleasing to the eye and good for food.” (Gen 2:9)
Yielding to temptation, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and sin entered the world. It took many years of struggles till the Chosen People were redeemed by Jesus on a cross, a tree of salvation.
Still in Genesis, I mused about Abram who “moved his tent and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord.” (Gen 13:18) I then drifted to the invitation to be the person who “is like a tree planted near running water, that yields its fruit in due season, and whose leaves never fade. [Whatever he does, prospers.]” (Psalm 1:3) Yes, being deeply rooted in God does produce fruit that will last.
The song stayed with me as I continued my walk through the Bible. I love the story of reluctant Jonah who ran away from God’s call to tell the Ninevites to repent. In a great teaching moment, God actually protected Jonah under a tree!
Ah, but the New Testament was beckoning, and I found myself in Jericho at the foot of the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed to get a glimpse of Jesus. When I stood under the spreading branches of that tree, I remember our tour guide waxing eloquent about the faith of this man short in stature, whose desire to see Jesus, earned him a meal with his honored guest in his own house!
However, it was on the Mount of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane that I was lost in wonder at the age-old gnarled olive trees. Perhaps these trees saw Jesus’ agony before his passion?! Whether they did or not, this was holy ground, and I absorbed it like a sponge. Midst the godly moments, there was poetic beauty. I recall Kahlil Gibran saying, “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.”
Recently I was given a gift, Thomas Merton’s “When the Trees Say Nothing.” Enclosed are his writings on nature, which are a manifestation of the divine. Here he writes, “How slender are the bodies of the young black oak! With one brush you could make them beautiful, on paper, but that would never be what they are.”
Elsewhere Merton says, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying [God]. It “consents” so to speak, to [God’s] creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”
When looking over the Genesee valley, Henri Nouwen exclaimed that he, “was dazzled by the bright colors of the trees. The yellow of the hickory trees, the different shades of red from the maples and oaks, the green on the willows – together they formed a fantastic spectacle.”
Gazing in awe at the pink blossoms on the crabapple trees leaning over our fence, I sang along with Mario Lanza’s soulful recording, the end of the song that had haunted me all day.
“…Poems are made by fools like me,
but only God can make a tree.”