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On Trees; the value of depictions

Why this picture of the tree is more glorious than the tree itself;   
a roundabout reflection on the value of "depictions."  (2001?) 

I think that I shall never see A poem as lovely as a tree. 

Joyce Kilmer.  1886-1918

(For Mrs. Henry Mills Alden)

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.

Does anyone else find it peculiar, that one of America's most read and memorized poems, contains within itself a germ of self-destruction?  Now I'm not sure that its author (Mr.) Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) meant it to be so, but there is a shadow of thought hidden in the shadow of "Trees" that would, if followed, end all poems.

To which you reply:  How so?
Perhaps my idea would be better expressed by looking at a real life event.  Some twenty-odd years ago, when I was twenty and about the business of taking pictures and asking metaphysical questions, I took a photo jaunt that took me into a community of Old-Order Mennonites.

Those of you who know me well may tire of hearing of that adventure, but it stands in my mind as a time I stood in the very cross-hairs of God's presence and holiness.  I met a group of people who's every way of life convicted me of sin, and spoke to another way of living.

In my short time with the Mennonites of Altamonte Tennessee, I discussed a mountain of things, including my involvement with photography.   These Mennonites did not believe that that act of taking pictures was inherently evil, but they were uncomfortable with idea of photography as a profession, and artistry in general.
Their discomfort took different forms.  One was the question of cost.  Or integrity. They believed that Christians were to be people who worked with their hands, and produced products in keeping with Christian simplicity.   The act of photography was expensive, and did not accomplish anything necessary for the Christian sojourner.

Second, (and this was a much bigger thought) – The bible warned about three primary ways that the human soul is corrupted:  The lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.  Didn't photography (or art) aim to stimulate those varied lusts?  Look at any magazine complete with ads; with any luck you might stoke each lust all at once in clever combinations!  Indeed, did not many artisans feast at the banquet table of carnality?
Besides that – even if photography chased noble themes, wasn't the glory it depicted always less than the glory itself?

That last line of reasoning was exactly what one of the brethren used with me.  As is, I had been asked by my host family, not to take pictures of the community, but I did spend some of the time between our varied discussions taking pictures of the Tennessee countryside.  John, a former Vietnam vet and convert from the outside, joined me on one of my jaunts.  He told me of his past involvement in photography.  Then he used a line of reasoning that helped him go beyond his desire to take pictures.   "See that tree.  Why would I need a picture of the tree when I can look at the tree itself?"

His line of reasoning was clear and simple.  Apart, perhaps, for the value of aiding the memory (a questionable value at that) or teaching children of distant glories (a better value) the thing produced would always hold less glory than the thing itself.  The tree is living and filled with light, huge and exploding with detail.  The photo is flat, lacking sound, smell and heat, and at best can only capture a portion of the glory.  Likewise, any other description of the tree, be it in poem or paint would always under represent the majesty of the original object.

John's form of reasoning made a kind of sense, and suggested that art, as an endeavor, lacked proper utility.  His idea also suggested to my heart that I might have a more selfish reason for doing what I did.  If any picture of anything I might take held less glory that the original, then my chief reason for taking any picture would be to show people what "I" had seen, or how well I had seen, or otherwise captured it.  "My skill" would be the hidden message behind each photograph.

It should come as no surprise that such a point blank look at personal motivation can be a bit unnerving.   That particular line of reasoning had all the more hook because I knew it held truth.  I was, and am, motivated by recognition.  I like to hear praise for my skill or eye.  But was that all I was about?

No.  I didn't think so… but still the larger idea lingered.  Can the artistry of man, really improve upon the artistry of God?  Are we not --in the process of making art—creating shoddy facsimiles –Even idols?  Do we not present a lesser glory and seek our own for having done it?

Should that last line or reasoning sound odd in some of your ears, I can only say that I have heard it a number of times from any number of people.  Perhaps well intentioned people. Take for example this lyric from the Rock band "Three Crosses" that follows a description of a sunset over the ocean.
"God did it better than Pablo Picasso, God did it better than Michelangelo."

Now at once, if we mean to contrast the Art of God, with the Art of man, we must all quickly and vigorously shout:  No Contest.  No compare.  No sense.  The artistry of God is at once so much greater than anything man can make that there is not even room for discussion. Would anyone say that a picture of the ocean is greater than the ocean itself?

How about a tree or a sunset? Of course not!

But that discussion is rendered somewhat silly when we consider that the ocean (or the tree or the sunset) and the man who makes pictures of things like trees, and oceans, and sunsets, are all works of God.  Birds build nests; Men make lithographic prints.  So which is greater – the art of God, or the art of God?


Now at once, some of you cry "logical fallacy".  God may make trees, and he may make the men who paint trees, but he does not Himself paint pictures of trees.   So the painting of the tree, is not in total, God's work.  And this seems true.  We do not claim that God wrote Beethoven's Fifth, any more than we would claim God sings through the lips of Marilyn Manson.  Human beings bring limited vision, independent will, various levels of skill, and no small amount of human rebellion to the act of creating.

Even so, there is in the act of creating, something that harkens to the nature of God himself.  God is Creator and has stamped his likeness into our being.   We are given the privilege of being micro-creators.

This last line of reason is familiar to many of you, but what does that say about the value of a tree picture.

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;A nest of robins in her hair;Who intimately lives with rain. 

It means that when a person paints a picture of tree, considers it with words, or frames it with a lens, the final product is more than just a "shadow" of the original.  Presumably, a landscape painter paints the scene because he sees before his eyes a certain glory.  He wishes to isolate, preserve, interpret, enhance, reorder, embellish, or even improve the thing before his eyes.  He takes the created thing, and re-creates it.  He makes a new glory.

Sure, the final product will lack certain glorious attributes of the original.  It may in fact, be bad art … but the artist makes up for that deficiency with a grand addition – He adds to his product "the majesty of man." 

Consider again the words of Joyce Kilmer.

When Mr. Joyce speaks of the loveliness of the tree, he begins first with an affirmation.  The tree is lovely.

Now dogs, chimpanzees, and fleas may look at trees, but I doubt any of them looking at the thing find within themselves an aesthetic response.  And the tree certainly does not.   So man, in his affirmation of the loveliness of the tree, surpasses trees, fleas, dogs and chimpanzees in his ability to apprehend loveliness.

Second, the man seeks a word to define his thought that the tree is lovely.  He not only finds is lovely, but he calls it lovely.  Granted, the language of poets may not be adequate to the task of describing the varied excellencies of trees – but we have some idea what the poet means when he says that he has never seen a poem as "lovely" as a tree.  The tree manifests a certain unity of form, pleasantness of organization, and organic power that we in turn sense and describe as "lovely."

What then should we call a tree that no one sees?  Consider for a moment a world without human beings. Consider the trees lifting up all bold and budding into the brilliance.  But the trees are blind to the light and unaware of their own being.  Whatever loveliness they possess is lost…lost to the act of not being seen.

Now of course, that whole idea is rather silly, because to think about a world without people, you must, as a person, think about this thing.  Should you have truly accomplished the task, you would have stopped thinking all together.   But here we have it.  Trees are found lovely because there are beings present who are able to apprehend loveliness.  And that is great.  Very Very great.

But getting back to the poem, not only does the poet … recognize that trees are possessed of this attribute that we find "lovely".... but he sees in the tree various kinds of loveliness.    And here is where the poet betrays himself.  He suggests that poems are not as lovely as trees, but trees – for having been seen by poets, are made all the more glorious.  And man is blessed.

Consider these lines.
"A tree whose hungry mouth is prest (pressed)against the earth's sweet flowing breast" -- Now talk about lovely!  I should wish to be a tree.  (Sorry, I just had to say that.)  But really, here we have some of our most potent images of loveliness.  Motherhood, nurture, and the feminine mystique.

Is a tree lovely?  Yes.

But how much more so, a tree that suckles the breasted earth!
As is, Kilmer goes on to describe other forms of tree loveliness.

A tree that looks at God all day,A tree that may in Summer wearUpon whose bosom snow has lain;

So now, WE -- are asked to see the tree with lifted arms… a tree in worship, a tree like a beautiful maiden with robins in her hair,  a tree awash in the rinse of the earth....

Now perhaps people without poems or pictures could see all that by looking at tree – but I doubt it.  Not only has the tree been recast through a new medium, but the original "God-made" tree is rendered all the more luxuriant.

I said at the beginning of this that I would show why my featured picture of tree is greater than the tree itself.  I may have overstated my case. Or at least used bait and switch. It is not that the picture of the tree is greater than the tree, but rather the process of "seeing" and "delighting" in the tree that is greater than the tree itself.  And the tree we come to see having recorded it- why that's great too.  This holds true whether the depiction is that of learned skill, or the lollipop scribble of a three year old.   What a tremendous thing it is, that a child should see, apprehend, and, affirm that he or she has seen "treeness."  And what a greater thing to share in God's creative joy.

But getting back to my friend John, the Mennonite who saw trees, but questioned weather recording them in an "art" way had value.  What if you could "see" trees, without re-representing them?
Very VERY Good.

I should much prefer a person who saw with the eye of wonder, and felt that was sufficient, to the person who sees with pen or glass, but sees with a wooden heart. 

But this is where the "art" part kicks in.  Do we not all (including John) see with wooden hearts?  Do we all not fail to see what we are looking at?  Are we all not, in the process of living, becoming adults?  Yes.  Except, that God, in his grace has given to the human family certain means and capacities for turning back the clock.  Indeed, he has given man the grace of "enlarging" His art.

I count photography, as man derived as it may be, as just one of those graces.  I hope it will not sound braggadocios, but I "see" trees. They are stamped in my soul—They climb like coral in the pneuma sea, They clap their hands--And that ability to find pleasure in the branches, is not only a gift of the heavenly Father, but in my case – an earthy father, who – when I was twelve – allowed me to use his 35mm German Exacta.  (Little did he know the joy he would place in my life.)

Thanks Dad.


So, Will you tell me of God's glory apart from some form of human extravagance?  Will you speak of Heaven's passion, with no flourish to you words.  Will you delight in what He has made, but not seek somehow to tell a friend?  Will you hold His colors, but not spread them?  Will you hear music but not sing?  Be my guest, but I for the life of me, can not see how. 


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