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.
Alfred Joyce Kilmer
Plane trees are an integral part of the identity of France and the French way of life. There’s nothing more magical on a hot summer’s day than enjoying the shade of magnificent, old Plane trees in a village square or driving beneath their cathedral-like arches on winding country roads. So, it seems fitting to begin this blog with a poem by Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) an American who was killed at the Battle of the Marne, the last German offensive on the Western Front during WWI. Curiously, French and American history will forever be entwined, just like the roots of the American Sycamore and the French Plantane Tree. Trees grow alongside generations of people for whom their familiar presence, even the inconvenience of their leaves and pollen, become the cornerstone of home, so that the death of any one tree inexplicably adds to the deterioration of a community’s character, history, and beauty. In a world full of ecological endangerment, Plane trees are dying by the thousands. Sadly, this also marks our fragility.
Plane trees debuted in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the Greek civilization. when they were imported to Rome from Persia. Pliny the Elder noted that it was very unusual for a tree to be appreciated solely for its shade. Over the centuries, the beauty of these mottled, marble-colored trees, which can live for over a thousand years, has not been lost on writers, poets and artists either. Plato included Plane trees as part of his literary scenery,while artists like Van Gogh painted under their dappled shade sheltering him from the scorching, Provençal sun and Paul Valéry wrote poetry about them. There’s a giant Plane tree in the village of Lamanon that is 20m tall, has a circumference of 8m and an impressive shade canopy of 1500m². It was reportedly planted by Catherine de’ Medici on her visit to Nostradamus, who was born in the nearby village of St. Rémy de Provence.
Plane trees were widely planted in France in the early and mid-19th century. Forty-two thousand were first planted on the orders of Napoleon III to reinforce the banks along the 240 km southern route (Carcassonne to the Mediterranean) of the Canal du Midi, originally constructed under the reign of Louis XIV, and to provide shade for the barges and boats that moved along the waterway through the countryside.
When American troops disembarked in Provence in 1944, the carried wooden munitions boxes made from the American Sycamore. Unfortunatley, these boxes were infected with a deadly fungal disease known as Ceratocystis platani, le chancre coloré (colored canker). Local French Plane trees were unable to withstand this invader. For the first 15 years the parasite remains dormant. Even cold weather does nothing to arrest its relentless expansion. Just a few spores introduced into even the most trivial wound is sufficient to entirely infect the tree, which can resist the infection for no longer than 4 – 6 years.
And if this weren’t bad enough, the fungus is extremely contagious, transferring itself via intertwined roots, pruning tools, even mooring ropes. More than fifty-thousand trees have already died, fifteen thousand in the last year alone. The INRA (National Institute of Agronomy Research) has been working on a solution and its scientists have bred a resistant hybrid. By crossing the American Sycamore with the Asian Plane tree they have achieved resistance not only to chancre coloré, but also other fungi, cankers, and bugs, while the hybrid trees retain all of the parent tree’s ornamental features. A 20-year rolling program has begun to cut the diseased 182 year old giants down. Fortunately, they can be replaced, at least in part, by the new resistant variety.
Sadly, it’s too late for the Plane trees lining the Canal du Midi. The effort required to save one majestic, rotting tree might seem absurd when compared with the dizzying scale of global climate change, but these trees are just as tender,and essential as we are.
To make a donation to help save the Plane trees, please visit: http://www.replantonslecanaldumidi.fr/en/incurable-illness
Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun…
Some days I wish I could go back in my life, not to necessarily change anything, but to savor some experiences and people who are now absent. I fantasized about this during the past few days. My niece was visiting me from the States for the first time. My brother, her father, died when she was a child. She is the closest I will ever come to having my brother here. For four days I found myself having a relationship with my brother’s un-lived life. Through her eyes I showed him the incomparable beauty of the southwestern French countryside.
I believe there are parallel possibilities that exist alongside us at any given time. What astonishes me is finding myself here, at this moment, deep in this life and no other. I could have taken a thousand different paths, but chose this one. What made me choose this one and not another?
Maybe because I was married to two actors, I’ve sometimes felt the universe had a central casting agent who sends us an endless supply of producers, directors, scripts and thousands of characters to choose from at each point in our lives. Each person and set of circumstances are necessary because, in an infinitely remarkable way, they help shape our stories.
I believe the spaces in between the lives we wish we had and the ones we are actually living teach us about who we are. It is in what’s missing, what we long for, what we want and can’t have, for whatever reason, that we find our true selves.
I do not know where I might have been led, who I might have been with, or in what country I might have lived, but as I look back what is certain is that the odds of my being here, in this moment, are nothing short of miraculous.
Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
when I might have been Abelard’s woman
or the whore of a Renaissance pope
or a peasant wife with not enough food
and not enough love, with my children
dead of the plague. I might have slept
in an alcove next to the man
with the golden nose, who poked it
into the business of stars,
or sewn a starry flag
for a general with wooden teeth.
I might have been the exemplary Pocahontas
or a woman without a name
weeping in Master’s bed
for my husband, exchanged for a mule,
my daughter, lost in a drunken bet.
I might have been stretched on a totem pole
to appease a vindictive god
or left, a useless girl-child,
to die on a cliff. I like to think
I might have been Mary Shelley
in love with a wrong-headed angel,
or Mary’s friend. I might have been you.
This poem is endless, the odds against us are endless,
our chances of being alive together
still we have made it, alive in a time
when rationalists in square hats
and hatless Jehovah’s Witnesses
agree it is almost over,
alive with our lively children
who-but for endless ifs-
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.
Alive Together by Lisel Mueller
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