Why We Need Trees: Not What You Think

Seeking composure in his raucous life, Edward Nudelman finds it in trees: 'Every angle triangulated'.

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'Balancing Act,' sculptural installation by Gulammohammed Sheikh, Fort Kochi, India. Image by permission of the artist.
'Balancing Act,' sculptural installation by Gulammohammed Sheikh, Fort Kochi, India. Image by permission of the artist. Credit: Mohammed Roshan

I Need Trees

Edward Nudelman

I need their birds
and dampened bark.
I need their loud swift
jingling and I need
their rare composure
over this moving
raucous house. I need
every angle triangulated,
every lean and turn
fully integrated.
My stilted speech
wavers hallelujahs
among their branches

From “Out of Time, Running,” Harbor Mountain Press, 2014

Edward Nudelman writes from Seattle: “A simple poem really, a kind of homily on the wonder and glory of trees and how they bring a quiet stability in the raucous rooms of our busy lives.”

Edward Nudelman. Photo courtesy of the poet

Simple? Not really. It names none of the most predictable needs from trees, neither basic things like food, shade and wood for construction and fuel, nor more complex concerns like climate control, soil conservation, defense or political statements.

The relationship to trees is asymmetrical – they don’t need humans but the poet needs them. They possess other things he needs (why?): birds, bark and “jingling”– an unexpected word to apply to trees, being usually associated with bells or money.

As a contra to the noisy flux of human life, he needs their “composure” -- constancy and steadfastness– a more familiar attribute of trees, as in the African American spiritual, “I shall not be moved, like a tree standing by the water.”
The next sentence talks about trees in engineering and mathematical terms – “every angle triangulated ... fully integrated.”

The scientific language comes naturally because Nudelman is a cancer researcher by profession; he and his wife also run an antiquarian book business. Ruefully, the poet concludes that his words are stilted and unsteady -- wavering hallelujahs – overshadowed by trees.

In Judaism – which equates the Torah with the Tree of Life – the New Year of the Trees, Tu Bishvat, is today. This is a fallow (shmita) year as ordained in Exodus 23:10-11, so schoolchildren will not plant saplings. Israelis will celebrate by eating largely imported dried fruit, though many kinds of fruit can be had fresh from trees.

They will also flock to the hills to see the almond trees blossoming. Small clusters of almond trees on tattered terraces show where an Arab village once stood; tidy orchards of fruit trees belong to kibbutzim, moshavim or cloisters; unrelieved stands of non-native pines are the work of the Jewish National Fund while thickets of oak trees, terebinths and low-slung shrubs are natural vegetation. Trees tell the story of the land.

Musing: Walking trees called Ents inhabit J.R.R. Tolkein’s Hobbit saga. Why is this notion both alarming and comforting?

*Bonus: A tree standing by the water – The spiritual became a protest hymn of the unions and the civil rights movement in the United States. Pete Seeger (who died just a year ago) sings “We shall not be moved”.