“Learning the Trees” - Howard Nemerov

I used to teach Tree Identification at a community college decades ago.

 I also wrote the book, 'Ortho's's All About Trees' which introduces trees to the reader. 

This poem reveals the beginner mind.   Watch for samaras and drupes.... 
Jan Johnsen

Learning the Trees

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Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn 
The language of the trees. That’s done indoors, 
Out of a book, which now you think of it 
Is one of the transformations of a tree. 

The words themselves are a delight to learn, 
You might be in a foreign land of terms 
Like samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome, 
Where bark is papery, plated, warty or smooth. 

But best of all are the words that shape the leaves— 
Orbicular, cordate, cleft and reniform— 
And their venation—palmate and parallel— 
And tips—acute, truncate, auriculate. 

Sufficiently provided, you may now 
Go forth to the forests and the shady streets 
To see how the chaos of experience 
Answers to catalogue and category. 

Confusedly. The leaves of a single tree 
May differ among themselves more than they do 
From other species, so you have to find, 
All blandly says the book, “an average leaf.” 

Example, the catalpa in the book 
Sprays out its leaves in whorls of three 
Around the stem; the one in front of you 
But rarely does, or somewhat, or almost; 

Maybe it’s not catalpa? Dreadful doubt. 
It may be weeks before you see an elm 
Fanlike in form, a spruce that pyramids, 
A sweetgum spiring up in steeple shape. 

Still, pedetemtim as Lucretius says, 
Little by little, you do start to learn; 
And learn as well, maybe, what language does 
And how it does it, cutting across the world 

Not always at the joints, competing with 
Experience while cooperating with 
Experience, and keeping an obstinate 
Intransigence, uncanny, of its own. 

Think finally about the secret will 
Pretending obedience to Nature, but 
Invidiously distinguishing everywhere, 
Dividing up the world to conquer it, 

And think also how funny knowledge is: 
You may succeed in learning many trees 
And calling off their names as you go by, 
But their comprehensive silence stays the same.

Howard Nemerov, “Learning the Trees” from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977). Copyright © 1977 


  1. So true! totally related to every word as I am always trying to identify trees that I see... Thanks for sharing! :)


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