Elegy for Trees Parker Palmer and W. S. Merwin
“Elegy for a Walnut Tree
by W.S. Merwin
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
Parker Palmer shared this poem on his weekly column on “Being with Krista Tippett”, Wednesday, May 3, 2017. https://onbeing.org/author/parker-j-palmer/
This is part of Parker Palmer’s response to this poem. “Some of you will wonder what took me so long, but in recent years I’ve developed a deep appreciation for trees.
I used to take trees for granted. But these days I know that sitting in their presence for a while will leave me refreshed and renewed. I wonder if trees photosynthesize the soul as well as sunlight?.. But most of all, I’m drawn to trees because of something W.S. Merwin says in this lovely poem — the way they slowly and quietly cycle through the seasons ‘as though nothing had happened while our individual and collective lives whirl madly around them.”
I want to remember this. Could “trees photosynthesize the soul?” Being outside with trees does do something to my soul. Photosynthesis “is a process used by plants to convert light energy into chemical energy (sugar from carbon dioxide and water) that later is released to fuel the plant’s activities and releases oxygen as a waste product.” Plants are like transformers, changing one form of energy into another, changing light energy into chemical energy. Being outside in a forest does transform and quiet my soul. The busyness of my mind, the committee in my head, my to do list, no longer are managing my mind. I am grounded to the ground. I get out of my head into my body. I see a world greater than myself, a power at work greater than myself. As I keep returning to the forest I see how the trees do quietly “cycle through the seasons”. The trees are a constant icon reminding us that we are to be the “steady bow” that Kahil Gibran writes about in the Prophet in his chapter on being a parent. We are indeed all parents caring for this earth that in turn also parent’s us, cares for us.
My father was a forester who for so many Saturdays took people out to plant more trees. Often, we would drive by the pine forest to see how they were growing. This made some synapse change in my cells so that I always had difficulty seeing a tree cut down. This poem is especially meaningful to me today since two large trees in my neighbor’s yard were uprooted last week just outside my window. Yesterday men with chain saws took the trees away. I grieve their absence. It helps to remember that our son and his wife had to cut down a tree that was dying adjacent to where they are building a house. They honored the tree by using the wood to make a mantle over their fireplace.
I look forward to hearing from you about what you have learned from trees and how you honor trees.