by Laurie Klein
An annual date dedicated to celebrating trees
Say you have one day to live. This one. What would you do?
See the ocean? Meet your hero? Sky dive?
Perhaps you’d fund a new well in an African village. You might leave notes inside your books for future readers to find. You could pre-order a single rose, to be delivered each month to someone you love.
Renowned poet W. S. Merwin declared, “I’d plant a tree.”
When I read his answer, I pictured the literary giant’s final act taking root—literally—unfurling a legacy both sturdy and verdant. Talk about an encore.
Then I learned about his sideline.
Up until his death at 91, Merwin painstakingly restored 19 acres of wasteland in Maui, Hawaii. He and his wife regenerated thousands of native plants and trees—including one species considered technically extinct. “Putting life back into the world” enlivened him.
Merwin, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, embodied the spirit of Arbor Day. Dropping to his knees most afternoons for 35 years, a poet considered a “national treasure” established one of the most lush and diverse palm gardens on earth.
Today amid tropical breezes the Merwin Conservancy rustles and sways, home to the plover and Chinese thrush, whose songs join the endless anthem of arching fronds.
Do you sense a biblical echo? “And all the trees of the field will clap their hands,” Isaiah wrote.
Poet e. e. cummings praised “the leaping, greenly spirits of trees”—suggesting simultaneous dance, sport, and standing ovation.
An unknown psalmist, on the other hand, compares believers to trees: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree . . . They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.”
And doesn’t our faith’s ongoing renewal, by its very nature, suggest countless ways to leave our hallowed, harrowing world more vibrantly fertile?
By the Master Gardener’s design, vital commonalities link trees with humanity. Attentive, generous community helps both species not only survive, but thrive. People network via language, touch, and actions. Trees hook up via roots, exchange predator warnings, share water and nutrients—especially when one member struggles.
And we all struggle.
Last summer, my brilliant, beloved critique partner of 25 years was diagnosed with a vicious cancer: Multiple Myeloma. And then, a brain tumor. Her subsequent treatment amid pandemic protocols has precluded our meetings. Will we have a shared future? Many a ragged sigh has since escaped me while rambling nearby woodland, where towering pines offer resinous comfort and shade. There’s also tacit collaboration: I pray aloud, and the trees absorb my expelled carbon dioxide. Within bark and heartwood inert traces linger—a shared memory of breath.
One day, while picturing the countless reams of paper my friend and I have exchanged and recycled, I longed to meld, as Merwin had, the literary with the literal. When a writing award came my way, I invested in trees, planted in her name. Long may they and their descendants furnish paper for writers who will one day succeed us.
Now, more than ever, the earth needs trees. “Land given a chance will come back,” Merwin said. Arbor Day participants agree. The hands-on celebration dates back to 1872, when acclaimed journalist J. Sterling Morton inspired Nebraskan volunteers to plant over one million saplings, awarding prizes for the most trees planted by individuals and counties. Morton’s event caught on. His vision expanded. The following year, more states joined the effort—this time, on Morton’s birthday.
“Other holidays repose upon the past,” Morton wrote. “Arbor Day proposes for the future.”
Before long, the entire nation was involved—and thereafter, the world. I like to imagine tree limbs raised in pulsing applause for our Maker. Can’t you almost hear wind sonify the patter of aspen and cottonwood leaves? One grand timbered ovation.
To this day, tamping a tree’s tender roots into soil remains a radical, healing gesture of hope, born of the bended knee and the outstretched hand. The overflowing cup of cool water.
Across the planet people of all ages are sowing acorns, seedlings, and saplings. We’re picking up litter. Tending the land. Afterward, sunburnt and weary, nails grimed, many will raise a glass. Perhaps an old Irish blessing will come to mind:
A toast to your coffin:
May it be made of 100-year-old oak,
and may we plant the tree together . . . tomorrow.
If not a shovel and sapling, how might you sustain greener tomorrows?
We each have this day. What will you do?
Song: “Blessed Is the Man,” written and performed by Bill Klein.
- If you photograph nature, or write nature poetry, consider submitting your work here, where part of your submission fee goes toward planting trees.
- Visit the official Arbor Day website here.
- You might also like A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, by Wendell Berry
- Photo: Laurie Klein
Spirituality of Gardening Online Course invites you to connect your senses and spirit with awe and wonder in the garden.