“In all my works I take the part of trees against all their enemies,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote late in his life. The Master of Middle Earth even referred on one occasion to The Lord of the Rings as “my own inner tree.”
With springtime erupting everywhere, I’ve been reading Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkein: A Biography. Exerpts from letters written in the spring of 1944 struck me by their attentiveness to the natural world around the busy Oxford professor.
These letters were written at the height of World War II, while Hitler’s armies threatened the world and Tolkien was laboring to complete the final volume of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s son Christopher had been sent to South Africa to train as a pilot with the Royal Air Force, and his father faithfully corresponded with him.
Tolkien’s letters to his son supply us with his thoughts upon approaching the Gates of Mordor in his writing, of his meetings with C.S. Lewis and other literary friends, of his duties as teacher and tutor at Oxford and of the plumbing issues consuming him at home. Yet the natural world still charmed the busy professor, noting this in a letter dated 18 April, 1944:
Leaves are out: the white-grey of the quince, the grey-green of young apples, the full green of hawthorne, the tassels of flower even on the sluggard poplars.
As the digital age tempts me away from nature’s tender beauties, it helped to recall that there has always been something to to tear humans away from their natural surroundings, and that eyes of childlike wonder can be maintained, even when the world is at war, even when duties like papers and plumbing overwhelm us.
If, under his own pressing circumstances, Tolkien could attend to the trees, so can I in mine.
I’m not as keen as Tolkien at discriminating among species or the varied shades of grey and green on budding trees, but a gift I received from my husband last Christmas has been helping me this spring. The Naturalist’s Notebook has been delighting me with its beautiful illustrations, practical essays on observing the natural world and it ingenious five-year calendar for recording observations.
Merely owning this unique tool has made me more attentive to the subtle signs of spring, particularly in the buds of the trees and bushes around my neighborhood. The little discoveries I make as I get in and out of my car or walk the dog after supper bring healing joy: the tiny green scallops emerging from the knotted buds of the Chinese elm, the furry grey aspen tassels illuminated by sunset’s rays in the alley, and yes–the grey-green of our backyard apple leaves, a gift of noticing from the humble man who was writing what is arguably the greatest novel of the 20th Century while the Nazis advanced around the world.
Fans of The Lord of the Rings will recall that Tolkien created a great army of mobile tree-beings, the Ents, whose final march into battle is stirred by their anger at Saruman’s armies, who cut down so many of their trees.
They will recall as well the heroic simplicity of Samwise Gamgee, whose occupation is a gardener. In Tolkien’s earliest years, Carpenter notes,
The child would be taken to the garden, where he could watch his father tending the vines or planting saplings in a piece of walled but unused ground. During the first year of the boy’s life Arthur Tolkien made a small grove of cypresses, firs, and cedars. Perhaps this had something to do with the deep love of trees that would develop in Ronald.
After the death of Tolkien’s father, his mother moved with her two sons from South Africa to England. She tutored them before they began more formal schooling. Mabel Tolkien knew her botany and the young Tolkien became quite knowledgeable about plants. (Patrick Curry, author of Defending Middle Earth, tells us that The Lord of the Rings contains at least sixty species of plants and at least eight invented ones.)
But again he was more interested in the shape and feel of a plant than its botanical details. This was especially true of trees…He would climb them, lean against them, even talk to them. It saddened him to know that not everyone shared his feelings about them.
Tolkien would later recall with sadness a felled willow he had once climbed. “They didn’t do anything with it: the log just lay there. I never forgot that.”
And so, with inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien and the guidance of my five-year naturalist’s notebook, I hope to grow in wonder in this spectacular season of spring, to delight in its exuberant freshness and distinguish its various greens and greys, to improve my naming of the flora and fauna in my neigborhood and on the mountain trails where I walk the dog when my husband grabs his fly rod and heads for a stream in search cutthroats and brookies.
And I hope especially to know the trees a little better.
Carpenter chose the perfect conclusion for his book on Tolkien’s life. He tells us that several weeks after Tolkien’s requiem mass in Oxford, some of the writer’s American admirers held a memorial service in California. Tolkien’s short story Leaf by Niggle was read.
In this poignant short story, Niggle, an artist in a society that doesn’t value artistic creation, labors to paint a canvas with a tree and a large forest. Niggle tends to each leaf with great care, but the labors and interruptions of his daily life often pull him away. The story is brought to a luminous finish when Niggle’s life journey ends and he is able to see his creation as a living tree.
Carpenter proposes that Tolkien “would perhaps have considered it not inappropriate” to have had Leaf by Niggle read at his memorial:
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.
‘It’s a gift!’ he said.
Beauty, created and invented, is all around us, beckoning from tree leaf buds above us and from the leaves of our most beloved books.
We recover our joy as we make time to sink roots in it.
It’s a gift.
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Some of the most beautiful writing on plants and especially trees I’ve encountered is found in Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl. For more, see Sparrowfare’s The Lab Girl and the Contemplative: A Campsite Convergence.
“Hobbits are remarkable–that’s every one of us.” A “Lord of the Rings” Spiritual Retreat with Fr. Timothy Gallagher at DiscerningHearts.com is a deeply sensitive and insightful series of podasts with Kris McGregor. It will grow your soul while growing your appreciation for Tolkien’s great book. Also worthwhile is her conversation on LOTR in her Great Works of Modern Literature series with Joseph Pearce here. (Both are also available on iTunes.)