The 18 Most Memorable Trees in Literature (Arthur Sze, Lia Purpura, and More Writers Choose Their Favorites)
This article appears on the Literary Hub website and is by Christopher Cox
“They were there at the beginning, trees in literature, centuries before humans had the idea of putting literature on (the pulped, bleached, and pressed remains of) trees. The Tree of Jiva and Atman in Vedic scripture, the Tree of Life in the Hebrew Bible, the withered poplars of the I Ching. Trees are bigger than us and they usually outlive us—no wonder they loom large in our imagination.
“Recently, the editors of Orion selected the best works about trees from our archive for a new anthology, Old Growth. To celebrate its publication, we asked our contributors and several of Orion’s editors to name their favorite tree from a book or poem. The results were eye-opening: as expected, Robert Frost made several appearances, but could anyone have guessed that two different marriages would spring from a dramatic reading of “Birches”? Some of the trees invoke the solemness of death: the mysterious conifer in Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Tree Ghost” and the potted orange tree in Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, the leaves on its bare branches replaced with post-it notes. Others thrum with life: the Ailanthus altissima in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the banyan in Wu Ming-yi’s The Stolen Bicycle, a monster that could hold a whole company of soldiers in its branches and roots and still keep growing.
“At first we wanted to rank the trees, or pit them head-to-head, March Madness–style, to see which one came out on top. Would Whitman’s hickory defeat Yeats’s chestnut? In the battle of the oaks, who would reign supreme: Calvino or Kunitz? But the trees invoked here, and the works of literature in which they are found, resist such a reductive treatment. Better to let each one stand on its own, “as diverse in scope as trees are in leaf,” as Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her introduction to Old Growth. Eighteen is insufficient to cover a subject as rich as “trees in literature”—but no number would ever be enough…”