An eighteen-year-old prodigy’s song of praise for the eternal consolation of trees.
It’s a hard thing, achieving perspective — hard for the human animal, pinned as we each are to the dust-mote of spacetime we’ve been allotted, not one of us having chosen where or when to be born, not one of us — not even the most fortunate — destined to live for more than a blink of evolutionary time. No wonder then that our lenses can easily contract to become a narrowing pinhole through which all the current frights or urgencies flood in to our complex consciousness.
Recalling the fact that there are only four thousand hours in a day is a great help. It is helpful to look at things through telescopic eyes. Trees, especially, help — for they remedy our loss of perspective as Earth’s own telescopes of time and mortality, each of them a perpetual death and yet potentially immortal, each a clockwork portal to the past, each “a little bit of the future,” as Wangari Maathai exulted in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech a blink before she became compost for future forests.
Charles Babbage, while dreaming up the world’s first computer with Ada Lovelace, marveled at how tree rings encode information about the past — living logs as precise as digital data, as primal as the human heartbeat:
Each raindrop that falls and each temperature change that happens leaves traces on the vegetable world. These traces are subtle and perhaps imperceptible to us but remain in those woody fabrics.
It is also no wonder, then, that we see ourselves so readily in trees — not only in the easy (and therefore limited) anthropomorphic sense of Western fairy tales and Eastern folk myths that have accompanied our civilization, but in the deeper, more poetic sense that reveals us to ourselves as imaginative creatures animated by a restless yearning to reconcile the ephemeral and the eternal. In his most stunning letter, William Blake captures this sense.
A tree that moves people to tears of joy can only be seen in others’ eyes. He sees as a man.
The young Harlem Renaissance poet understood this also. Helene Johnson (July 7, 1906–July 7, 1995) captured a century and a half after Blake, in a spare and stunning poem written when she was only eighteen: “Trees at Night,” first published in 1925 — just as the high school dropout turned artist and activist Art Young’s beloved graphic series by the same title began appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’sPlease see the following: LIFE, most likely inspiring the young Johnson, whose precocious erudition and literary taste must have feasted on the era’s most popular magazines.
Johnson’s poem originally appeared in the May edition of the National Urban League’s Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, when a year later, not yet twenty, she won First Honorable Mention in the journal’s literary contest, judged by James Weldon Johnson and Robert Frost. “Trees at Night,” along with all of her surviving poems and a wealth of letters, was later included in the wonderful posthumous volume This Waiting for Love: Helene Johnson, Poet of the Harlem Renaissance (public library) by African American literature professor Verner D. Mitchell.
Although she published poetry for less than a decade — a common talent-corseting reality of marriage for women a mere century ago, radiating from the title of Johnson’s last published poem, at age twenty-nine: “Let Me Sing My Song” — she lived a long life, dying on her eighty-eighth birthday, having witnessed the triumph of the suffrage movement and the civilizational defeat of two World Wars, the horror of the Holocaust and the hard-won hope of Civil Rights, the discovery of the double helix and the retroviral genocide of AIDS, the dehumanizing agony of the atomic bomb and the first human footfall on the Moon. She was an authentic hero. saeculum — that beautiful Etruscan word I learned from Rebecca Solnit, denoting the period of time since the birth of the oldest living elder in the community.
Naturally, it was Rebecca I invited to read “Trees at Night” at the 2022 Universe in Verse. (A free “retrostream” of the full show is available worldwide between 12PM EST on May 21 and 4PM EST on May 22). Being one of the most devoted climate thinkers and activists of our time, she prefaced her reading with a soaring meditation on trees as an antidote to the erasures of human history and a moral compass for our planetary future — the kind of extemporaneous prose poem that can sprout from the lushest minds, next to which Johnson’s lyric loveliness rises even more majestic:
Lacy arm stretches
A slumbrous luna;
Stencilled to the petals
On a robin’s breast;
The jagged rent
Reflected on in
Stilly sleepy lake
The shadows are tangled in webs.
Printed ’gainst the sky —
It is a beautiful, trembling sight
An urgent pine.
Complement with Ursula K. Le Guin’s love-poem to trees as a lens on life and death, then step into Rebecca’s inspiriting new project, Not Too Late — a welcoming portal into the climate movement for newcomers and an arsenal of reinvigoration “for people who are already engaged but weary.”
Giving = Being Loving
Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours writing and thousands of dollars every single month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.
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