Literary Arboretum

While visiting my longtime friend and former roommate Ella1 at her home in Folsom, California this past summer, her family graciously took me along with them to visit the nearby Muir Woods National Monument. Ella and I were catching a redeye out of San Francisco that night, but had quite a bit of time to kill, so her mom made turkey sandwiches for everybody and we all packed into their minivan, prepared with freshly filled water bottles and small packages of trail mix for the ride before of us. I should make a disclaimer here: I had been anxiously waiting to see a redwood tree since I was a kid, when my mom would sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” to me while strumming along the melody on her acoustic guitar. The “redwood forest” of the song always seemed mysterious and primordial, mystical and untouchable. Sure, I had seen trees and loved being around them while growing up in my home state of Georgia, but now I was going to see Trees. I was about to behold one of the most renowned and revered species, the Sequoia sempervirens.

When you enter Muir Woods, all you can really do is tilt your head upwards, where you look into eternity; the massive trunk of the redwood splits infinitely into smaller and smaller branches, unfathomably. As you walk through the forest, you hardly dare to whisper. The trees in all their vivid viridity seem to gently demand your reverence as you observe their spiritual magnitude—so vast and superior to your own. While I observed this holiness, from the soft carpets of illuminated clover and sprouting fern fronds erupting from the ground like green fountains, two literary moments regarding trees revolved around my head. The first comes out of The Pearl of Great Price, Moses 3:9, which reads, “And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. And it became also a living soul.” 2 To speak of trees being anything but “living soul[s]” seems improper and disrespectful to those beings that have remained rooted in the earth long before and will continue to be long after the natural cycles of thousands and thousands of human bodies. Sometimes, when I approach my friends of fellow faith about considering trees as beings, the idea seems funky or strange. I imagine this could also be the case for many faiths. And yet it remains an inherent part of the restored gospel to believe in the ontological reality of seemingly unemotional, unthinking entities like trees and plants.

The second literary thought wasn’t of scripture, but of Sylvia Plath—though some make no distinction between the two. That day, I had just finished reading The Bell Jar for the first time and was astonished at the amount of tree references that Plath makes over the course of the novel. The famous fig tree vision comes to mind (you can listen to Aziz Ansari read it), but Plath’s character Esther Greenwood is also found “in the shelter of an American elm,” and notices a cicada “in the heart of a copper beech tree,” among other instances with various angiosperms. This observation creates a sort of literary arboretum that exposes the reader to a system of tree species that each carries its own separate meaning and significance. 3 The way Plath approaches trees may reflect how she perceives herself, a notion eminent in her aptly titled poem, “Elm,” which reads,

“I know the bottom, she says

I know it with my great tap root:

It is what you fear.

I do not fear it: I have been there.” 4

What literature and scripture inform us here is of the tender humanity of trees, not necessarily in humans anthropomorphizing them, but purely from their state of being and from their relationship to observers, caretakers, and major beneficiaries (or in other words, everyone). As I stared up into the far-reaching branches of Muir Woods that summer day, I couldn’t think of the trees as anything less than myself and my humanity, but instead, as beings far surpassing it.

This post was written by Maren Loveland, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.


[1] Her name has been changed.

[2] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1989.

[3] Plath, Sylvia. “Elm.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49003/elm.

[4] Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Harper Collins, 1971.

 

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