When Joyce Kilmer penned ‘Trees’ in 1913: “I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree…” The poet, I’m sure wasn’t contemplating the essence of the cottonwood.
Spring is the time of the year when these lovely trees share their seeds, those fluffy harbingers of misery that show up like wedding crashers in my pond pumps, air conditioning and worst of all-they gum up my fishing reels.
I know that we don’t have one in our yard and I don’t recall seeing one in the neighborhood but there has to be a prolific female of the “Populus deltoides” within a short distance of our house.
The males of the species don’t shed, thank you.
According to the Department of Agriculture, those pesky little cottony fibers can fly for several hundred yards on the slightest of breezes. If they should land in a river or other waterway, they can spread for miles.
These trees live on average of 80-100 years with the oldest recorded one in the U.S. located in Balmsville, New York. This one was recently cut down at the age of 300 as it was becoming a traffic hazard.
Folklore tells that George Washington planted his walking stick in the ground and left it there. The stick being made of cottonwood.
Not as good a tale as the cherry tree but as good an excuse for the massive shade, seed bearing, obnoxious deciduous plants as any.
They do like the flood prone areas along riverbanks and are often used to reclaim strip mining lands and offer erosion control, growing up to six feet a year.
Because of this rapid growth, they do not produce good lumber but are used extensively in the pulp making process, providing a source of high quality paper.
As for the author…
Born as Alfred Joyce Kilmer on December 6, 1886 the son of Dr. Frederick Barnett Kilmer who invented Johnson’s Baby Powder and his wife, Annie Ellen Kilburn.
After graduating from Columbia University of New York he distinguished himself as a freelancer with Funk and Wagnalls dictionary by writing word definitions at 5 cents apiece. He was so productive at the job that the publisher put him on salary.(1)
It was during this time that he penned the poem for which he became famous.
Even though he had a family to support and had established himself as a poet, essayist and lecturer, he volunteered for military service in WWI, serving as a scout in the famed 42nd “Rainbow Division”.
His service took him to France and the Second Battle of Marne where he became an intelligence scout in a unit that later (in WWII) was established as the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.
Although his poem was often criticized and lampooned, it inspired a movement that exists to this day.
Tree planting and conservation had become his calling, leading to the naming of many natural areas after him, including the 3,800 acres of virgin timber which make up the Joyce Kilmer National Forest in North Carolina.
He never lived to see the inspiration that his poem, “Trees” provided to the millions of us who value and encourage the care and management of forests.
He never received the accolades given him or his work.
At the age of 31, Sergeant Alfred Joyce Kilmer was killed by a German sniper’s bullet on July 30, 1918.
He was posthumously awarded the French Criox du guerre for distinguishing himself “by acts of heroism during combat.”
“Poems are written by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”
Thank you for your service.
- Hillis, John. Joyce Kilmer: A Bio-Bibliography. Master of Science (Library Science) Thesis. Catholic University of America. (Washington, DC: 1962)