the trees are down

Jul 22, 2021 poetry appreciation

For a few years now, my local council seems to have been on a mission gratuitously to cut down trees. I get that sometimes this is necessary; but the info-about-works relating to one copse up on the fell near my house gave, as the reason for felling, “felling”. Hmm. Another glorious maple on the green was cut down because it was a Canadian maple, and therefore non-native, and therefore… well, what?? So sad. I don’t know if it’s consoling (as in we read to know we are not alone) or even more depressing to find this poem, ‘The Trees are Down‘ by Charlotte Mew, in which the poet laments exactly the same thing. (There’s a rather good reading of it here.) It was written almost exactly a hundred years ago. Plus ca change.

That the poem starts with ‘They are cutting down the trees’ (my italics) is so unobtrusive and deft. It establishes ‘the men’, with their ‘loud common talk, the loud common laughs’ as other, the enemy; while the poet herself is one of “us”. We are invited to join her in her desolation. And it’s both personal—the loss of something she has lived with ‘half [her] life’—and common to us all: the poem is shot through with a sense of the interconnectedness of all creation. And if even an ‘old dead rat’ can ‘for a moment, unmake the Spring’, how much more shocking and devastating when these great trees—a sort of incarnate history, living embodiments of, witnesses to, decades—are slaughtered. They cannot be harmed without harm to everything: ‘my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes’. It is not only ‘for a moment the Spring is unmade’ in the felling of these trees. It is a huge, irrevocable loss.

The quotation from Revelation, and the closing reference to an ‘angel crying’, invite us to remember what Joyce Kilmer notes in ‘Trees‘: that ‘[p]oems are made by fools like me,/ But only God can make a tree’. If you need to, insert in place of ‘God’ whatever word or idea works for you—nature, the universe, whatever. The point stands. Sobering thoughts to take with me into my morning walk. So if one day you spot a middle-aged woman embracing one of those huge, extraordinary beeches at the top of the wood, it’s probably me…

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