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The Write Way

16 January 2009

... a Poem Lovely As a Tree


We have a lovely old tree in our garden, right in the back corner ... it's one of the few deciduous trees in the area, and it's just wonderful to watch the leaves fall and then start to bud again in spring.

Each winter we watch, fascinated, as a variety of birds build (or repair) their nests in it. They're not exotic birds, just regular little crested pigeons, magpies, ravens and the occasional Koel, waiting for an opportune moment to lay her eggs in an accommodating nest.

This year, our ravens have reared two lots of babies, and we've shared all the major moments in their lives, from the time they first popped their little heads over the nest, until they started to clamber inelegantly up and down the branches -- in an attempt to build muscles in those skinny legs. Their first few flights were hardly the stuff of dreams, and we winced at their repeated crash landings as they gradually learnt to get their eye in judging distances for landings and take-offs. 

They've also learnt how to dunk their dried food scraps in the bird bath and to cool off in our pool. I worried at first that they'd drown or get sucked into the filter box, but they have smart parents who've shown them how to delicately drop their tucker into the gutter along the side of the pool if the birdbath is empty, leaving it just long enough to soften, but not so long that it disintegrates.

In winter, when the pool was covered with a solar blanket, they found out how to take a warm bath. They'd jump up and down at the edge of the blanket, so that a shallow pool of water formed, then they'd splash around and have the time of their lives. See our ravens here. 

As I said, we have a lovely old tree ... but its days are numbered.

The axe fell (metaphorically at this stage, but sadly it will soon be literally) one morning last week as the Love of My Life was mowing. He was interrupted by the sight of our neighbour from the house behind, running up the yard in his pyjamas and bare feet. He accosted the LoML and demanded to know when we were going to get rid of that $#@ of a tree that was dropping #@! leaves in his yard. The $#@ branches were hanging over his fence and those %$# roots were getting into his yard, and if we didn't do something about it ... etc etc.

Now, I think you know us well enough by now to know that we're a peace-loving couple, easy to get along with, happy to co-exist with our fellow travellers on this lovely blue planet of ours, and this outburst really upset both of us.

As we sat and pondered the fate of our tree and all its residents, we shook our heads sadly and wondered what it is that makes so many people hate trees. It seemed to us in our dark hour that people like our nasty neighbour won't be happy until every living thing has been removed and they're left with a bare block they can cement over and control absolutely. We decided that this must be what's at the root of their problem -- that desperate and insecure need to control.

Sigh ... I was miserable every time I looked at the tree and thought of what lay in store for it. And try as I might, I couldn't hold back that tiny voice inside my head that kept saying, "It's not fair."

And well, no, it isn't fair that one complaint can spell death for so many birds, insects, reptiles, spiders and assorted bugs, worms and more we never see ... That tree is a miniature world. But sadly, there's nothing writ in stone that says life was going to be fair. 

It just is.

Marcus Aurelius got it right when he wrote: "The art of living is more like that of wrestling than of dancing; the main thing is to stand firm and be ready for an unforeseen attack."

We're just hoping that Robert Louis Stevenson's prediction proves accurate: "Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences." And boy oh boy, have we dreamed up some fitting consequences for our nature-hating neighbour!

We worry, as did E. B. White when he wrote: "I have one share in corporate Earth, and I am nervous about the management."

Yes, I know what you're thinking, that we are just as bad as our neighbour, because our values and ideas are different and are obviously impinging on his desire to live a life unbothered by those annoying leaves and birds.

Sigh ...

I suppose Bertrand Russell hit the nail on the head when he wrote: "Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day."

And on that philosophical note, we say thank you to Dr. Mardy Grothe for compiling this wonderful collection of metaphors and similes (and analogies) in his latest book, i never metaphor i didn't like. (Isn't that just the best book title you've come across?) 

See more here. 

Mardy is one of our Merry Band, and in his introduction to i never metaphor i didn't like, he tells how he started collecting words from his favourite authors when he was in college. So taken was he with what he read, he wrote snippets on file cards and pasted them onto his walls, and before long, he had his entire wall covered! From such beginnings developed his life-long interest in words.

I, too, wrote out pithy comments and witticisms during my university days and tacked these up around my desk. I was obviously going through one of my teen-melodramatic phases, because I can still remember two of these:

From T. S. Eliot's brilliant poem, 'The Hollow Men', "This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper."

And the other was from my Anthropology friend I told you about before  ... "The world in general doesn't know you exist; the world in particular doesn't care."

Not terribly cheery ... but when you're 17, you feel obliged to be angst-ridden on occasions.

If this week's title looked a bit familiar, you're showing your age, my dear. It's the start of a poem by Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918): "I think that I shall never see, A poem lovely as a tree."

I hate to say this, but from that promising start the poem goes rapidly downhill and becomes terribly twee. See what you think here.

See what I mean? However, the first line is a fine example of what we've been discussing ... Similes and metaphors ... Remember?

We started by discussing trees, so let's end with a vignette on the same subject:

A man walks into a flower shop and discovers something new: a bonsai palm tree in a pot. As he admires the plant he says, "With fronds like these, who needs anemones?"



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This week's quiz:

Here are some words about our arboreal cousins ...

node, glabrous, tracheids, cambium, phloem, conifer, drupe, inflorescence, petiole, strobile

1. fleshy fruit with a single stone or pit

2. the flowering portion of a plant 

3. smooth, with no hair or scales 

4. a cone or inflorescence with overlapping bracts or scales 

5. layer of tissue one to several cells thick found between the bark and the wood; divides to form new wood and bark 

6. inner bark of a tree that carries food and sugars from the leaves to other parts of the tree

7. trees and shrubs that usually bear their seeds in cones and are mostly evergreen; includes pines, firs spruces, yews 

8. the point on a stem at which leaves and buds are attached 

9. small-diameter tubes in the wood of trees that carry water from the roots to the leaves 

10. a slender stalk that supports a simple leaf 

And since we've been pondering the imponderables a little today ...

If a mime walks in the forest and a tree falls on him ... does anyone care?

And this story is about trees ... sort of ...

A travelling salesman is driving down a country road when he comes across a farmer who is standing in his orchard, hoisting pigs into the apple trees with ropes. He stops. "What are you doing?" the salesman asks. 

"I'm feeding the pigs," answers the farmer, incredulous that someone could ask a question with such an obvious answer. 

"Well," says the salesman, "why don't you let the apples fall to the ground, gather them up in baskets, and feed the pigs that way?" 

The farmer ponders, then says, "Hmmmm. Yes, I guess I could do it that way. But what would be the point?" 

The salesman is a bit exasperated: "Well, it would save time, wouldn't it?" 

The farmer ponders again. "Yes," he says after a pause, "I guess it would save time. But what's time to a pig?"


Last week's quiz:

Match up these terms and you'll at least be able to speak knowledgeably about the snake that bit you ...

brumation, aglyphic, crepuscular, binomial, boid, ecdysis, elapid, herpetologist, ophiophagous, solenoglyphic

1. venomous snakes with fixed front fangs and usually strongly neurotoxic venom; includes Cobras, Mambas, Kraits, Coral Snakes, Sea Snakes, Taipans, Tiger Snakes - ELAPID

2. snakes belonging to the family of the boas and pythons - BOID

3. shedding of the skin - ECDYSIS

4. a scientific name comprised of two parts, genus and species - BINOMIAL

5. person who studies reptiles and amphibians - HERPETOLOGIST

6. snakes that do not have fangs for venom delivery - AGLYPHIC

7. feeding on snakes - OPHIOPHAGOUS

8. “cooling” a herp by lowering its temperature for usually 2 to 4 months to approximate conditions during the winter period; not the true hibernation of mammals but a process that triggers the physical changes that stimulate egg production in females, sperm production in males and the breeding response necessary for successful captive propagation - BRUMATION

9. describes a venomous snake that has moveable fangs, which fold up against the roof of the mouth when not in use - SOLENOGLYPHIC

10. active at dusk or dawn - CREPUSCULAR

A Little Something Extra

Here are some places to start if you think you can do better than Joyce Kilmer, or if you'd just like to write about Nature ...

Advice to young writers from nature writer, Robert Winkler here 

Some ideas on how to keep a nature journal from the College of the Liberal Arts Department of California Polytechnic State University here 

A comprehensive list of resources for writing about nature from the English Department at Virginia Commonwealth University here 

General writing advice from Monash University here 

Word of the week: Pogonip (n) an ice fog that forms in the mountain valleys of the western U.S.

This isn't a word we would ever get to use much here in sunny Queensland, but it shows once again that English has a word for everything! We have the Native Americans to thank for this t'riffic word ... it was first recorded around and comes from the Shoshone napph 'thunder cloud', 'earth', nappih 'fog.' 

It just sort of rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?

Oxymoron of the week: extinct life form (A timely reminder to do what we can to avoid making any more of these! Not that our Nasty Neighbour cares ...Grrr!)

And a nice little Latin phrase for your garden ...

In hoc spatio arbor noster floruit

[EEN HOHK SPAH-tee-oh AHR-bohr NOH-stayr FLOHR-oo-eet]

(In this space our tree has flourished)

Did you know that you can have your very own Latin reminders? How about undies proclaiming, Bene est rex esse? (It's good to be king) Or a shopping bag that warns, Emptrix nata sum (Born to shop)? 

Kind regards,


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