Some of my favorite characters are trees. With Earth Day (April 22) and Arbor Day (April 29) coming up, I’m thinking of arboreal authors and their tales of trees and people who live in them, from Tarzan to the Swiss Family Robinson. Trees have played important roles, if only in the background, of many terrific books.
As much as I loved Mary in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, I never became much of a gardener. I loved Sam Gribley’s home in a tree far better. Mary cultivated the titular overgrown garden at an old Yorkshire mansion and made it her refuge, sharing it with the invalid, Colin. Sam, on the other hand, ran away from his family’s New York City apartment and lived in the woods of upstate New York with a falcon in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. That’s the life for me, I thought when I read it in fifth grade at about the same age as the woodsy character, Sam. I was a tree-climbing girl though not as experienced at living off the land as Jean Craighead was. She grew up in a family of naturalists and her first pet was a turkey vulture. She gave her main character many chances to use survival skills, from harvesting wild foods to hollowing out a tree with fire to make a home.
In a tragic, true tale, a young woman named Sara sought out her favorite tree, known as the Senator, and built a small fire there one January night in 2012. Sadly for her and the world, the fire spread and she accidentally burned down the 3500-year-old bald cypress, the largest tree east of the Mississippi. Writer Julia Shipley asked Sara if she’d been inspired by My Side of the Mountain when she got in the habit of visiting the Senator and sitting inside it. “No,” Sara said, “But do you know The Giving Tree? That’s one of my favorite books and that’s how I look at what happened.”
Sara had been addicted to meth for eight years and getting in trouble for incinerating a national treasure forced her to get sober. “Basically the tree saved my life,” she said.
Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree, is for all ages, showing how a tree can nurture and support us throughout our lives. Silverstein’s simple drawings convey a human lack of reciprocity that could be shameful yet is somehow touching. The trees give so much to us and now and then we pause and notice and appreciate it.
A 1942 book called Tree in the Trail charmed me in my youth with its Native American version of reciprocity with a cottonwood tree and how such a tree could “witness” 224 years of history. But reading it now I cringe at the stereotypes of Indians, Spaniards and others depicted by Holling Clancy Holling.
A better source for Native American stories about trees is Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants Through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac. They write, “Living in balance, in many Native North American cultures, means to live within and honor the circles of life. A circle of giving and receiving becomes part of our relationship with the natural world when we take only what is necessary to survive and return the remains of plants and animals to the earth with gratitude.”
A Seneca thanksgiving for trees is included in the book, ending with “Let us put together our thoughts that we will always be grateful” for the medicine, firewood, and other gifts of trees.
As for picture books, The Happiness Tree: Celebrating the Gifts of Trees We Treasure by Andrea Albin Gosling and illustrated by Lisa Burnett Bossi is lovely in every way and suggests values we can learn from the trees. For instance, a White Pine stands for courage. The last page recommends, “Plant a Happiness Tree on Arbor Day.”
Another good one for Arbor Day is Janice Udry’s A Tree Is Nice. Marc Simont’s illustrations show the many things children like to do among trees. My favorite is, “We can sit on a limb and think about things.” The book won a Caldecott award.
I’ll end with a quote from a 2015 novel for young adults, Trampoline, by Robert Gipe. An edgy book about a strip-mined town, the main character fights for her life in a devastated landscape. Yet she finds renewal in her Kentucky hills: “The trees and the roll of the earth held me up like the ridge holds the cloud from passing so it can pour down rain. The vines and the rabbits and the squirrels and the orange lizards out on the rocks after a storm–all those things I’d forget when people dragged me down–I needed them close and always.”