Take a moment today to gaze into the branches of a favorite tree. Joyce Kilmer, author of the popular poem "Trees", was born on December 6th, 1886. His verses in appreciation of natural beauty, and his death as a young soldier, were honored with the dedication of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
English oak (Quercus robur) on a frosty morning- picture titled "Growing in Kent, U.K. British oaks are leafless from November till Spring." by Dmersh
I first "met" Joyce Kilmer when I was in fifth grade. My classmates and I were to choose a poem, memorize it, and recite in front of the class. I never imagined that forty years later, I'd again have the opportunity to choose "Trees". This time, I wanted to know more about Kilmer's life and the context of his poem. Yes it was his poem; the author's full name was Alfred Joyce Kilmer. He preferred to be known by his middle name, which was the surname of the family's minister. Joyce Kilmer displayed his passion for the written word while in college, serving as editor of several campus newspapers. After graduation he worked briefly as a teacher and as a dictionary writer. Moving his young family from New Jersey to New York City, Kilmer's career in the literary world developed promisingly. He worked as a literary reviewer, essayist, and lecturer, while writing poems. His first book of poems, Summer of Love , was published in 1911.
"Trees" was published in the magazine Poetry in 1913. Kilmer's simple verses were not written to honor one specific tree, but in appreciation of trees he viewed from his New Jersey home. The poem was immediately popular. It became known to millions after it was set to music. Kilmer's mother wrote one version, but the most popular was the melody by Oscar Rasbach. Rasbach's "Trees" song was performed by well-known singers such as Nelson Eddy and Paul Robeson, and in a Little Rascals film. The popularity of the simple poem "Trees" enhanced Kilmer's speaking career. In 1914, Kilmer published the book "Trees and Other Poems." Kilmer continued to write creatively while working as an editor and lecturer. He published four more books by 1917, one of them another volume of verse. A number of his poems give the impression of a man with a sensitive soul, and show his appreciation for the beauty of the natural world.
I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.
A nest of robins in a dogwood tree
On April 6 of 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. The perhaps sensitive and gentle poet reacted with a display of personal responsibility and duty. Joyce Kilmer immediately enlisted in the New York National Guard. He was assigned to the U. S. 69th Infantry Regiment in August, and sailed to Europe in October. Kilmer worked as a statistician for the Army in France. He wrote while in France and intended to publish a book about his experiences. His verses "Prayer of a Soldier in France" describe a spiritual response to the hardships of infantry life. His poem "Rouge Bouquet" memorializes soldiers killed in a forest of the same name in France. Sadly, Kilmer himself was killed in France during the war. He had voluntarily left the statistician position and was working in Regimental Intelligence Section, a more active and dangerous role. On July 30th, 1918, he was found dead from a bullet wound suffered while scouting. He was 31 years old. Kilmer received the French Croix de Guerre for his bravery.
Kilmer was mourned by his wife Aline and four children. The literary world lamented the loss of a well known, promising young writer. With the widespread popularity of "Trees" and Kilmer's reputation as a speaker, his death in service with the Allied Forces seemed especially tragic. A memorial was right and proper, though not immediate. A New York veterans group asked the federal government for a memorial in 1934. A tract of wooded land was suggested as a fitting tribute to this author. Several thousand acres of virgin hardwood forest was available in western North Carolina. In 1936 it was named the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
This "lovely"-est of the now numerous memorials and public buidlings named for Joyce Kilmer was dedicated on July 30th, 1936. Today this 3,840 acre parcel is part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. The forest here consists of mature hardwoods in a unique diverse ecosystem. Parts of the Wilderness are old growth forest containing towering poplars, sycamores, and oaks. Massive, centuries-old trees are rare elsewhere in the region, since most of the forests of eastern United States were timbered at some point after the arrival of Europeans. The deep shade under the huge trees is carpeted with fallen logs and moss, and is graced with songbirds and wildflowers. (Some old growth stands are found to support 3 pairs of birds per acre- thats potantially more than ten thousand "nests of robins" in the the Kilmer tract.) Blue Ridge Smoky Mountain Highlander.com gives a wonderful, detailed description of the forest and trails at this link.
James A. Hart says in this Poetry Foundation biography of Kilmer, "The memory of Kilmer's ebullient personality and his courage has dimmed as the decades have gone by, and much of his verse is forgotten and derided; but he merits some remembrance for his idealism and valor and for one or two significant poems. " I agree with that, and add that the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest sounds like a unique and entirely fitting honor to Kilmer and treasure of natural beauty.
"Trees" sung by Paul Robeson on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOHekLZD5i4 accessed 11-29-2011
About Sally G. Miller
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.