To celebrate Arbor Day 2010…
When we talk about great Southern books, our minds tend toward the dynamic accomplishments of Southern fiction, works of monumental creative complexity and, generally, moral seriousness. A humble encyclopedia of trees is not included in a list with As I Lay Dying, just as much as a Raleigh newspaper columnist has never been mentioned in the same breath as Faulkner. But Charlotte Hilton Green’s Trees of the South is a great book, even if Green wasn’t considered a great author. Her work, subtly, is as complex as a first order collection of an entire region’s flora can be, and as serious as a first, earnest plea for ecology.
Admittedly, the book’s significance is elusive at first. As readers we have no space in the canon for semi-scientific natural guides. In 1939, Trees of the South was printed from Green’s “Out-of-Doors in Carolina” columns in The News and Observer, where Green was directed to be accurate but not “too technical.” For the book, Green took her editor’s advice a step further, tailoring her words for a juvenile readership. Then again, there’s nothing intricate or intellectual about her point: protect our trees. Whatever the complaints about her style, it may very well demonstrate how far she was ahead of her time, that conservation had not yet reached adult dialogue in the South.
Something funny happens, too, when the columns are compiled and rounded out: The sum begins to transcend the original audience. For one, the 1955 edition is a hefty 541 pages sans index. And the revised and expanded entries sometimes can be as equally sobering as informative. For example, after quoting instructions from a 1610 colonial document on draining resin from a pine tree, Green opines on the loss of the longleaf pine in the Southern landscape:
“In this new land, where resources seemed limitless, conservation has remained undreamed of until too late. As a whole, the South has made little attempt to turpentine its pineries as economically as possible [….]”
In tandem, her stylistic flourishes, designed for those youthful readers, seem more simply to reflect an exuberance for her subject.
In fact, one of Green’s clear motivations for putting this book together, beside the success of her earlier work Birds of the South, is a fear that trees and the forests that contain them are being taken for granted. In response, she tries to infuse the environment with electricity, to give it an imaginative life above a stolid monotony. Thus, the mountain laurel’s bloom is a “small flower-David, hurling its sling-shot of pollen at marauders.” The woods become reinvested with the characters of myth and romance, with nymphs and sibyls, fairies and royalty. Seventy years later, the allusions are quaint and easily palatable considering the book’s breadth and purpose.
No appeals for canonization are without personal prejudice. I have my own courtship with Trees of the South, one robust with the clichés of love. As with all meaningful books in my life, I happened upon it serendipitously—or fatefully—in this case the library at the University of Arkansas, where it was a gleaming diversion to an overwrought thesis on James Dickey. When it came finally into my possession as a wonderful gift, I doted over the taut binding, the pleasure of running my fingers through the pages. And we had our own fanciful assignations: over the blustery shelves of the Boston Mountains, the granite field stones of North Georgia, the still blackwater rivers around the Okefenokee Swamp—out-of-doors, where all books, especially one such as this, should be read. There is no better place to learn that John the Baptist survived on the pulpy seed pods of a locust tree, not on bugs as I heard sitting on the hard pews of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, than reclined beneath a honey locust.
Now with less time for such idle joys, my relationship with Trees of the South has matured into a dependable form of companionship. Green’s book is always on hand for any excursions afield. Strange leaf specimens are cross-referenced against each chapter’s black-and-white photographs. What the guide lacks in clinical rigorousness, it makes up for in “unusual fact or tradition.” Consequently, when I reach for the book, my aim is to appreciate and know a tree as much as identify it, which of course is exactly the way Charlotte Hilton Green would have wanted it.
Perhaps I was already predisposed to it, but Green has achieved her goal, sustaining in me at least “a love, an understanding, and an appreciation of trees, for their beauty, their wonder, and their use.” It seems her “nature study” arose out of nothing more than individual passion and an altruism to safeguard something that improved her living experience. In 1939, striking an anticipatory chord of environmentalism, she encouraged “a friendship with trees” for a “life richer and fuller.” And, indirectly, she queried a surging timber industry and the Southerner casually disregarding his or her “spiritual riches”:
“Since his first appearance on earth they have been his friend and protector [….] Will we, in return, ever learn to cease sacrificing them needlessly?”
I don’t know Green would like the answer today, with the grim prognostications of global warming and the clear-cut blitzkrieg made by developers across her South. But I think she’d write a sequel, with the same emphases. And I would ask her to include my friendships: a magnolia, apples trees, and pecans that were taken by the highway’s expansion. I’d tell her that I live in Chestnut Mountain between the Mulberry River and the Walnut Fork of the Oconee. That all the chestnuts are gone now, but on the road toward Oakwood, I’ve stood in awe beneath a humongous white oak that the Georgia Forestry Commission at one time claimed to be the largest in the state. That for some deep emotional reason, it’s heartening to muse on the possibility my great-great-great grandfather stood beneath and admired that very same specimen.
Happy Arbor Day! May have you many friends among the trees.