Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Welcome, A Sociology of Trees needs your help!

Welcome to my first blog. A Sociology of Trees has grown out of the fertile soil of post-dissertation glee. Gardening has always been a part of my family (you should see my grandmother's roses or my grandfather's gardens), but I've always felt a special kinship with trees--particularly the majestic redwoods of my home state. Walking through an old-growth redwood forest is probably one the last magical activities on Earth--and it cannot quite be explained in words (which probably just adds to the woody magic).

Well, one thing I realized about finishing a dissertation is that I'm still poor. I suppose finishing one's PhD in the worst economic downturn since the depression adds to this parsimonious predicament; the net result of it being I've canceled all of magazine subscriptions (and the trees rejoiced).

I am an insatiable reader, and my magazines filled a little void in my life, especially in the morning after my breakfast and coffee when I sought the solace of a quiet, private room. With no reading material at hand, I felt myself blocked, mentally and physically, so I ran downstairs and grabbed the first book I could find: The Guide to American Trees. I was in love again. I realized trees are a beautiful metaphor for the human condition. Give them enough time, space and adequate water and heat, they will take over every inch of land and choke off most life below them. I thought, "hey, trees are evolutionary a**holes, just like humans--they spread and cover everything available inch in front of them. Ferns are the pigeons of the forests! We are a lot alike. Sure, there's also a more beautiful image of a delicate root system, that subconscious existence that affects our outward appearance--at times nourishing, at times strangling our conscious lives. The Buddhists cherish the Lotus plant--the symbol of compassion--since its beautiful flower depends upon a root system that descends into the muck and mire of the swamp. In Western culture, the tree is our lotus--we know its visible beauty is supported by an invisible network of roots in the dirt.

Enough of my ramblings. This blog needs you. This blog is about the interaction of humans with trees, or, how humans represent trees in history and art. That means I need your help. Sure, I know where the oldest trees on Earth are, as well as were the tallest ones are (they're both in California, by the way), but I'm also looking for those idiosyncratic trees. Perhaps there is a tree that has special meaning in your town or city. I want to document that. Just think, one of the earliest surviving poems in English is about a tree (The Dream of the Rood); Billie Holiday evokes the "Strange Fruit" growing on trees to capture a chillingly shameful epoch in United States history. In short, trees are always around us in our visible lives and imaginations. In the comments section, tell me where your trees are and what stories you know (please give a specific location, if you can) and help this blog grow.


  1. You should do a post on Kate Sessions. She planted thousands of trees around San Diego, creating the "Dr. Suess" look that everyone remarks on when they visit that area (Dr. Suess himself did live there and the landscape influenced his art). The crazy thing about Kate Sessions is how she traveled the world to find species of tree that could survive in SD's dry climate. In her time she was a remarkable greening influence on the state. But in retrospect, with an ecological perspective, she was a tremendous harm, bringing in all kinds of non-native eucalyptus and other invasive species. The tension between her contribution as a tree-planter and the damage she did as an importer of foreign species would make a great study.


    This is a tree that used to stand in an empty lot near the campus of Illinois state University. The small farmers market used to be held under its looming figure and people would string up lights across its branches during both the winter and the summer. When the lot was purchased for the purpose of building a restaurant they decided to not simply bulldoze the tree down but keep it standing as a part of the ambiance of the eating establishment.

  3. Okay, some random pop culture tree presence.

    Do you remember in Superman II when General Zod & Co. are rooting around in Superman's fortress of solitude (he's not around, he's off being mortal) and they start popping his information crystals into the console? What should come up but some bald Krypton man reciting Joyce Kilmer's Trees: "I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree."

    Also, sometime when you're at Jeff's or my house, have one of us take you through this mission in this game: