. . . but only God can make a tree. So said American poet Joyce Kilmer in 1914, four years before his death in the battle of Ourcq southwest of Paris. He and his enduring poem are tied for all time with the words “as lovely as a tree,” God and nature, and a memorial forest in North Carolina.
Wherever one lands in debates about natural theology and religion and the evolution of species, it’s clear that Kilmer and his poetry celebrated nature and spirituality. He didn’t live to see the role of trees in cooling our warming planet, but he did appreciate their “intimate” connection to rain and snow, their ability to shelter creatures, their seasonal adaptations.
He understood that trees and water are linked like gloves and fingers. From the uptake of water by their “hungry mouths,” to the evapotranspiration of moisture that cools a hot summer day, trees disperse water and make it look easy.
They help retain rainstorm runoff in a garden or forest, mete torrents of water out in manageable amounts, help move surface water to groundwater in a sort of process of titration. Trees are critical to a healthy watershed (or, in other words, the land).
Trees play their roles so discreetly they are often overlooked. “The role of trees and forests in managing stormwater and protecting water quality is just beginning to be understood by some engineers, planners and community leaders,” say foresters at Penn State University. What Kilmer had observed about trees and their intimate lives with rain, both urgent and eloquent in his spare poetry, has taken countless technical papers and drawings and urban stormwater plans to replicate.
Kilmer’s words are also tied forever to the tradition of Arbor Day, the purpose of which is simply to get trees in the ground.
Known as Greenery Day in Japan, World Festival of Trees in the Netherlands, and All-Russian Day of Forest Plantation in you-know-where (ironically, for a country so involved today in defoliation), Arbor Day is celebrated in some countries in the spring, in others in the fall, depending on climate and best time to plant.
Arbor Day got its start in some countries only after wildfires decimated whole forests. North Macedonia, after widespread fire devastation in 2007, declared a national Tree Day. Folks took time off from their daily routines to plant. The first year they planted two million trees, one for each member of the population. The tradition expanded and continued, until by 2009 over twenty million trees had been restored to former forest lands.
In Niger, Arbor Day was instituted to coincide with the country’s Independence Day, to free the nation from the creeping desertification that plagues the African continent.
In other countries, states, and counties, Arbor Day lasts longer: a week in the United Kingdom, for instance, a month in South Africa. During those dedicated times, communities engage in the regreening of landscapes.
And the trees give back, with their roots and bark and branches and beauty. They connect to each other and the soil they both draw upon and feed. They turn water and nutrients and sunlight into life—and breathe their oxygen back into Earth’s atmosphere. (As one of my biologist friends says, “We humans couldn’t even think of doing that.”)
Without a curtain call or armful of roses to thank them, trees cool our lives and our gardens and our riverbanks and other sweet parts of the “earth’s sweet flowing breast.” All while standing in place.
As wild rivers connect with aquifers and so excel in water storage, as bees pollinate flowers and so support the food chain, trees and forests hold the health of our planet and ourselves in their “leafy arms.” All we have to do is to help nature (and God) make, restore, and conserve trees.

POETRY: Read my latest poem, “Arbor Day,” in Canary. Better yet, read the whole mag.
BENEFIT: Sales of my books still benefit UNICEF helping children and families in Ukraine for the foreseeable future. Thank you to those of you who have supported this effort by purchasing copies of my fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.
REVIEW: Not in a buying mood? Email me about receiving complimentary review copies.
RIGHT HERE: And, despite prior plans to move to Substack, for now I’m staying right here, as Dooley Wilson (Sam) said in Casablanca. Of course Sam did not stay right there. He left the bar and the movie as soon as she walked in—alone, backlit, and wearing all white—but that is a story for another blog. For now I’m sticking with my home blog, in part due to this post by Jane Friedman. I’m checking out the way media outlets come and go, as Jane recommends, not budging, like a tree standing in place.

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