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Trees and Us: Poetic Metaphors and Pastoral Images

Jesus said, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking” (Mark 8:23).


This article elaborates on my earlier contention that poetry and pastoral care have a great deal in common (Capps, The Poet’s Gift, 1993) by focusing on Joyce Kilmer’s well-known poem “Trees.” I use this poem to support the metaphorical association of trees and human beings and to advocate for the pastoral image of the upholder. A brief sketch of Kilmer’s life is presented, and parodies of the poem are used to address the question whether pens are mightier than swords (a question that Kilmer’s own life as a poet and soldier also evokes). The article concludes with Denise Levertov’s poem “From Below” which, together with Kilmer’s “Trees,” illumines the image of the pastor as ordained to be the upholder of the community and of the individuals who comprise it.

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  1. Thompson’s autobiography was made possible by a fellowship from the Newberry Library and published in 1946 by the University of Chicago Press. Born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1905, she was nine years old when her family moved to Driscoll, North Dakota. She received her B. A. degree from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and did postgraduate work at Northwestern University’s school of journalism. Following the publication of her autobiography, she became an associate editor of Ebony magazine, a new publishing venture of Johnson Publishing Company. She remained with Ebony until 1964 when she became international editor for Johnson Publishing Company, a position she held until 1986. She died at home in Chicago in 1987. From “Era Bell Thompson” <>.

  2. From “Joyce Kilmer”

  3. Thor Engval’s poem illustrates Freud’s (1927/1963) point in his essay on “Humor” that humor reflects the genial side of the superego because Engval uses words for male genitalia that would be considered inappropriate in polite and/or mixed company. However, we forgive him because we know that the poor fellow is in excruciating pain (see also Capps 2010).

  4. It is worth noting that Oliver does not identify the tree’s species. There is “not even a note / As to whether it was deciduous / Or evergreen, or even where it stood.” This calls to mind W. S. Merwin’s (1992) poem “Native Trees” (p. 6) in which he relates that neither his father nor his mother “knew the names of the trees / where I was born,” and when he would ask them to identify a tree they were unable to do so. They were also unable to answer with certainty his question whether there were trees in the places where they grew up. To the young boy, their responses caused him to doubt whether they saw the trees at all. This was an even more problematic situation than that of overlooking the forest for the trees, but it has bearing on the seeming discrepancy between Kilmer’s title “Trees” and his focus in the poem itself on a single tree, as this very discrepancy suggests that attending to just one tree may be instrumental in enabling one to see others as well.

  5. Poetry (the journal in which Kilmer’s “Trees” was originally published in 1913) has a series “A View from Here” in which persons who are in fields of endeavor other than literature comment on how poetry has enriched their work. In her contribution to this series, Nalini M. Nadkarni (2010), a professor and researcher on forest ecology, quotes from several poems on trees. She notes that “trees exemplify both strength and fragility” and “both provide protection and require protection” (p. 344). She cites several lines from Pam Galloway’s poem “On Galiano” which draws attention to the fact that trees shed their bark and encourages us to recognize that we, too, need not worry about what happens to our skin as we grow older for “there are stronger layers beneath.” She also quotes almost in its entirety Gail Mazur’s (2005) “Young Apple Tree, December,” noting that it is evocative of the tree’s fragility. It is also, however, evocative of the tree’s inherent strengths. It begins, “What you want for it you’d want / for a child: that she take hold; that her roots find home in stony / winter soil.” Continuing, it expresses the hope that as she matures her limbs will “grow pliant, graceful and surprising,” that she will “know, in her branching, to seek balance,” that she will “turn to a giving sun,” and “that change / not frighten her; rather change meet her embrace.” In the concluding lines it looks toward that time when she will “prepare for the hungry world, / the fallen world, the loony world, / something shapely, useful, new, delicious” (pp. 72–73). The phrase “the fallen world” recalls the popular association of the apple with the Fall, but here the apple tree is redemptive. We might say that Mazur has written the poem that Nemerov’s Oliver was unable to write; but, more importantly, the poem provides insights for developing the pastoral image of the upholder beyond the scope of this paper.


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Correspondence to Donald Capps.

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Capps, D. Trees and Us: Poetic Metaphors and Pastoral Images. Pastoral Psychol 60, 437–449 (2011).

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  • Poetry
  • Pastoral care
  • Metaphor
  • Pastoral images
  • Community of voices
  • Era Bell Thompson
  • Joyce Kilmer
  • Trees
  • Upholder
  • Margaret Zipes Kornfield
  • Parody
  • Pens vs. swords
  • Thor Engval
  • Howard Nemerov
  • Denise Levertov