Sitting in a darkening room yesterday as evening came on, I sensed snowflakes falling beyond the window. Torn by a western wind and rain that had fallen throughout the day, the falling shards of ghostly white were the petals of the magnolia tree that stands in our front garden, planted by us thirty years ago. Every year since, its trunk has thickened and its branches have spread; and every spring before coming into leaf it has put forth its creamy-white, goblet-shaped flowers in growing profusion. This year it reached full maturity, putting on a display that has lit up our window and the entire street. Seeing this annual unfolding fills me with great happiness. Planting this tree three decades ago strikes me now as being one of the most satisfying and valuable things I have ever done.  

There’s something about planting a tree, watching it grow, and knowing that it will be there long after you have gone, that is satisfying indeed: something to do with the inexorable nature of time, an awareness of our mortality, and a wish to leave behind some mark of our time here. Perhaps, also, the act of planting something that will outlive us brings an awareness of how time exists within us (the days, the seasons) and beyond us (generations, centuries, millennia). ‘I see,’ wrote Blake, ‘the past, present and future existing all at once before me.’ You feel the same sense of time extended beyond lifetimes in WS Merwin’s poem, ‘Elegy for a Walnut Tree’:

Old friend now there is no one alive
who remembers when you were young
it was high summer when I first saw you
in the blaze of day most of my life ago
with the dry grass whispering in your shade
and already you had lived through wars
and echoes of wars around your silence
through days of parting and seasons of absence
with the house emptying as the years went their way
until it was home to bats and swallows
and still when spring climbed toward summer
you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers
of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened
you and the seasons spoke the same language
and all these years I have looked through your limbs
to the river below and the roofs and the night
and you were the way I saw the world

Our magnolia this month
Our magnolia this month

In Islam, the virtue of planting and caring for a tree is encouraged and explained as a work of charity. One Hadith points out that whoever plants a tree will be rewarded whenever a bird or another human uses the plant for food or shelter:

There is none among the Muslim who plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird or a person or an animal eats from it, but is regarded as a charitable gift for him.

When I observe the way our magnolia – or any tree for that matter – has spread its branches and reached for the sunlight, I recall something that John Berger wrote about a drawing by Van Gogh:

The gestures come from his hand, his wrist, arm, shoulder, perhaps even the muscles of his neck, yet the strokes he makes on the paper are following currents of energy which are not physically his and which only become visible when he draws them […] the energy of a tree’s growth, of a plant’s search for light, of a branch’s need for accommodation with its neighbouring branches… My list is arbitrary; what is not arbitrary is the pattern his strokes make on the paper. The pattern is ilke a fingerprint. Whose?

The energy of our tree’s growth, its search for light, and the accommodation each branch has made with its neighbours, can be traced in these photos taken over recent years:

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The blossom lasts a week at most, and is quickly spoiled by rain or wind. After yesterday’s steady rain, many petals have fallen and now lie strewn on the ground:

With the planet warming as CO2 levels in the atmosphere increase, we know how crucial trees are for human welfare and for the sustenance of other ecosystems and species. Yet, in many parts of the world, they are being cut down, their timbers harvested unsustainably, and fragile ecosystems that they support being endangered or destroyed. Apart from the familiar story of how trees absorb CO2,  trees and forests provide innumerable other benefits: for example, clear cutting a forest leads to soil loss and the land becoming arid and infertile, while the marine ecosystem downstream will be deprived of iron and other vital nutrients that had once run off from the forest.

In Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, John Berger wrote:

A forest is what exists between its trees, between its dense undergrowth and its clearings, between all its life cycles and their different time-scales… A forest is a meeting place between those who enter it and something unnameable and attendant… Something intangible and within touching distance. Neither silent nor audible.

Magnolias, drawing by John Berger from his book Bento's Sketchbook
Magnolias: drawings by John Berger from his book Bento’s Sketchbook

The American poet WS Merwin has expressed his thoughts about these things over several decades of writing, for example, in ‘Place’:

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

activist W.S. Merwin, with his wife Paula in their Hawaiin garden
Poet and environmental activist W.S. Merwin, with his wife Paula in the garden they planted

Merwin has done more than simply write: in the late 1970s, he bought three acres of an old pineapple plantation in Hawaii – a ‘paradise lost’ in his words, where little grew due to deforestation and pollution from chemicals left in the soil. He and his wife began planting trees, and slowly a garden grew into a whole forest of palms from seeds collected around the world. Palm species around the world face threats, even extinction, from logging, invasive species, and climate change. ‘I can’t stop them from destroying the Amazon forest,’ Merwin said, ‘but I can go out and plant a tree, you know?’

Poet and environmental activist WS Merwin
Poet and environmental activist WS Merwin

‘Rain Light’ was written by Merwin as a reflection on these issues:

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning.

The original magnolia, 132 years old, outside the Magnolia Tree Earth Centre in New York
The original magnolia, 132 years old, outside the Magnolia Tree Earth Centre in New York

I came across the story of a magnolia tree that has inspired another environmental project, this time in urban New York. In the mid 1960s, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district, local activist Hattie Carthan discovered a 40-foot Magnolia Grandiflora tree, which generally does not grow north of Philadelphia, thriving in front of three 19th-century brownstones. The terraced houses had been protecting the tree from extreme heat and cold.

Mural depicting environmental activist Hattie Carthan, outside the Magnolia Tree Earth Centre in New York
Mural depicting environmental activist Hattie Carthan, outside the Magnolia Tree Earth Centre in New York

Learning that urban renewal projects threatened both the terrace and the tree, Carthan embarked on a movement to save them and to create an environmental centre that would educate and motivate local residents to garden and conserve the natural environment. In 1973 the Magnolia Tree Earth Centre was formed and, after a 17-year campaign, the group was able to buy the three threatened brownstones and turn them into a local environmental education centre.

Magnolia tapestry at the Magnolia Earth Centre
Magnolia tapestry at the Magnolia Earth Centre

The historic magnolia tree was also preserved, and was designated a landmark by the New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Today there are two magnolia trees in front of the three brownstones. The taller original tree was brought from Georgia and planted there in the 1850s. It is a southern species, uncommon to cold climates like New York, which buds large white fragrant flowers in early summer. The smaller neighbouring tree, planted by Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, was intended as a replacement in case anything ever happens to the older one. Now the Magnolia Tree Earth Centre is involved with community gardening, urban horticulture, tree planting in vacant lots, and environmental preservation programmes, often incorporating cultural arts, dance, and music.

In another poem, ‘Trees’, WS Merwin encapsulated his thoughts on what trees have meant for him:

I am looking at trees
they may be one of the things I will miss
most from the earth
though many of the ones I have seen
already I cannot remember
and though I seldom embrace the ones I see
and have never been able to speak
with one
I listen to them tenderly
their names have never touched them
they have stood round my sleep
and when it was forbidden to climb them
they have carried me in their branches

Hokusai, Sparrow and Magnolia, 1834
Hokusai, Sparrow and Magnolia, 1834
Hokusai, Java Sparrow on Magnolia, 1834
Hokusai, Java Sparrow on Magnolia, 1834

The magnolia is an ancient tree, first appearing some 20 million years ago – before  bees were around to pollinate them. There’s a theory that evolved to encourage pollination by beetles. Our magnolia is a Japanese variety which opens flower buds in February or March before the foliage emerges. Unlike the Southern magnolia that is native to the United States (such as the one outside the Magnolia Tree Earth Centre in New York), our tree, like all descended from the Japanese varieties, is deciduous and drops its leaves in winter.

I can never think of the southern magnolia without hearing in my head two completely contrasting lyrics. JJ Cale’s ‘Magnolia’ from his classic 1971 album Naturally swoons with the lusciousness of the tree and the memory of a woman that it invokes:

Whippoorwill’s singing
Soft summer breeze
Makes me think of my baby
I left down in New Orleans
I left down in New Orleans
Magnolia, you sweet thing
You’re driving me mad

Paradoxically, the scent of southern magnolias is sweet, too, in ‘Strange Fruit’ sung by Billie Holiday in which ‘Southern trees bear strange fruit’:

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism and published under the pseudonym Lewis Allan in 1937, Meeropol was compelled to compose the song after seeing a photograph of a lynching. In the song it’s the branches of a poplar tree from which the ‘strange and bitter crop’ hangs, but it’s the sweet magnolias you remember from this couplet:

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Hiroshige, Purple Magnolia and Hornbill, 1830
Hiroshige, Purple Magnolia and Hornbill, 1830

Like the cherry, the magnolia is greatly admired in Japan, and, as these examples show, was the subject of many studies during the golden age of woodblock prints in the late 18th and 19th centuries – including several by the great master, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) who was the subject of an interesting episode of In Our Time this week (and to whom will be devoted a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition at the British Museum this summer).

Kubo Shunman (1757-1820), Magnolia
Kubo Shunman (1757-1820), Magnolia

I’ll finish with more from WS Merwin – this time a remarkable prose piece that imagines – in the manner of a film spooled backwards -‘Unchopping A Tree’:

Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nests that have been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places. It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed or mutilated. If the fall was carefully and correctly planned, the chances of anything of the kind happening will have been reduced. Again, much depends upon the size, age, shape, and species of the tree. Still, you will be lucky if you can get through this stages without having to use machinery. Even in the best of circumstances it is a labor that will make you wish often that you had won the favor of the universe of ants, the empire of mice, or at least a local tribe of squirrels, and could enlist their labors and their talents. But no, they leave you to it. They have learned, with time. This is men’s work.

It goes without saying that if the tree was hollow in whole or in part, and contained old nests of bird or mammal or insect, or hoards of nuts or such structures as wasps or bees build for their survival, the contents will have to repaired where necessary, and reassembled, insofar as possible, in their original order, including the shells of nuts already opened. With spider’s webs you must simply do the best you can. We do not have the spider’s weaving equipment, nor any substitute for the leaf’s living bond with its point of attachment and nourishment. It is even harder to simulate the latter when the leaves have once become dry — as they are bound to do, for this is not the labor of a moment. Also it hardly needs saying that this the time for repairing any neighbouring trees or bushes or other growth that might have been damaged by the fall. The same rules apply. Where neighboring trees were of the same species it is difficult not to waste time conveying a detached leaf back to the wrong tree. Practice, practice. Put your hope in that.

Now the tackle must be put into place, or the scaffolding, depending on the surroundings and the dimension of the tree. It is ticklish work. Almost always it involves, in itself, further damage to the area, which will have to be corrected later. But, as you’ve heard, it can’t be helped. And care now is likely to save you considerable trouble later. Be careful to grind nothing into the ground.

At last the time comes for the erecting of the trunk. By now it will scarcely be necessary to remind you of the delicacy of this huge skeleton. Every motion of the tackle, every slightly upward heave of the trunk, the branches, their elaborately reassembled panoply of leaves (now dead) will draw from you an involuntary gasp. You will watch for a lead or a twig to be snapped off yet again. You will listen for the nuts to shift in the hollow limb and you will hear whether they are indeed falling into place or are spilling in disorder — in which case, or in the event of anything else of the kind — operations will have to cease, of course, while you correct the matter. The raising itself is no small enterprise, from the moment when the chains tighten around the old bandages until the boles hands vertical above the stump, splinter above splinter. How the final straightening of the splinters themselves can take place (the preliminary work is best done while the wood is still green and soft, but at times when the splinters are not badly twisted most of the straightening is left until now, when the torn ends are face to face with each other). When the splinters are perfectly complementary the appropriate fixative is applied. Again we have no duplicate of the original substance. Ours is extremely strong, but it is rigid. It is limited to surfaces, and there is no play in it. However the core is not the part of the trunk that conducted life from the roots up to the branches and back again. It was relatively inert. The fixative for this part is not the same as the one for the outer layers and the bark, and if either of these is involved in the splintered sections they must receive applications of the appropriate adhesives. Apart from being incorrect and probably ineffective, the core fixative would leave a scar on the bark.

When all is ready the splintered trunk is lowered onto the splinters of the stump. This, one might say, is only the skeleton of the resurrection. Now the chips must be gathered, and the sawdust, and returned to their former positions. The fixative for the wood layers will be applied to chips and sawdust consisting only of wood. Chips and sawdust consisting of several substances will receive applications of the correct adhesives. It is as well, where possible, to shelter the materials from the elements while working. Weathering makes it harder to identify the smaller fragments. Bark sawdust in particular the earth lays claim to very quickly. You must find our own way of coping with this problems. There is a certain beauty, you will notice at moments, in the patterns of the chips as they are fitted back into place. You will wonder to what extent it should be described as natural, to what extent man-made. It will lead you on to speculations about the parentage of beauty itself, to which you will return.

The adhesive for the chips is translucent, and not so rigid as that for splinters. That for the bark and its subcutaneous layers if transparent and runs into the fibers on either side, partially dissolving them into each other. It does not set the sap flowing again but it does pay a kind of tribute to the preoccupations of the ancient thoroughfares. You could not roll an egg over the joints but some of the mine-shafts would still be passable, no doubt. For the first exploring insect who raises its head in the tight echoeless passages. The day comes when it is all restored, even to the moss (now dead) over the wound. You will sleep badly, thinking of the removal of the scaffolding that must begin the next morning. How you will hope for sun and a still day!

The removal of the scaffolding or tackle is not a dangerous, perhaps, to the surroundings, as its installation, but it presents problems. It should be taken from the spot piece by piece as it is detached, and stored at a distance. You have come to accept it there, around the tree. The sky begins to look naked as the chains and struts one by one vacate their positions. Finally the moment arrives when the last sustaining piece is removed and the tree stands again on its own. It is as though its weight for a moment stood on your heart. You listen for a thud of settlement, a warning creak deep in the intricate joinery. You cannot believe it will hold. How like something dreamed it is, standing there all by itself. How long will it stand there now? The first breeze that touches its dead leaves all seems to flow into your mouth. You are afraid the motion of the clouds will be enough to push it over. What more can you do? What more can you do?

But there is nothing more you can do.

Others are waiting.

Everything is going to have to be put back.

To Plant a Tree is a documentary which examines the life and work of WS Merwin which was partly filmed with Merwin at his palm garden in Hawaii. It explores how his environmental activism goes hand-in-hand with his poetry, and is edited from a feature-length documentary entitled Even Though the Whole World Is Burning. Neither film seems to be available in the UK unfortunately.

Read more

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6 thoughts on “To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago

  1. This is a terrific article, Gerry. There’ve been others I’ve meant to thank you for, but this put me over the edge, as it were. Also, almost a year ago, in Berlin, your piece on the commemorative cobblestones gave a purpose to a few days there, where I tracked some down, which led to others. I won’t drag this out, but your blog is a real encouragement to tie together the lose strands of thought picked up over the years and only now sort of understood. Best wishes, Francis

  2. Another wonderful post, Gerry – thank you.
    We planted six young trees in our back garden last summer, what is intended to grow into our ‘orchard’, and to have seen them emerging into fresh life over the last couple of weeks has been such a source of delight which we hope will be repeated year on year.

  3. Thank you Gerry. I read this on a particularly fraught day when my mother was in hospital. It was her 88th birthday. I went back home on the tram in Nottingham and was moved to tears by the beauty of those poems. I looked up to allow the words to sink in – and saw a magnolia tree, the flowers just coming out. It was lovely. I smiled and my day was better, thank you. Pam

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