Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The War Against the Trees/Summary/Theme


Stanza 1: The poem opens with a man and his neighbors watching bulldozers tear up the man’s lawn. The man is joking with the neighbors, and the event is referred to as a “show.” The man’s upbeat behavior suggests that he has sold the land for a good price. “Branchy sky” indicates that this parcel of “lawn” has quite a few trees on it, as the branches seem as much a part of the sky as of the tree. Contributing to the carnival-like atmosphere is the personification of the bulldozers as sloppy males on a date, who, “drunk with gasoline,” force themselves on the woman, as they test the “virtue of the soil.” This last phrase is also ironic since the bulldozers are not concerned with the soil’s quality, as farmers are, but with what lies beneath the soil.

Stanza 2: Stanza two begins full mobilization of the language of war (“forays” and “raids”). The bulldozers- as-tanks, having taken out what would be the first line of defense, the privet-row, now take out the second line—forsythias and hydrangeas. But the real “enemy” lies ahead. Bulldozers head for the hard-to-root-out trees, analogous to a nest of machine guns protected by lines of surrounding troops. The trees themselves are monuments of a civilization, and every time an elm fell “a century went down.” In a familiar metaphor the trees are also likened to human bodies, as they are described as having been “lopped and maimed.” This is akin to the trees’ beheading, or the hacking of limbs from their torsos (trunk), an occurrence in humanto- human war. The offensiveness of the acts is heightened because the trees are humanized, referred to as the “great-grandfathers of the town.”
Stanza 3: The war continues as bulldozers and Caterpillars (“hireling engines”) dig up tree after tree. The limbs and tops have already been hacked away and the roots are the last to go. The speaker remarks that undermining the trees also destroys the habitat of soil grubs and moles, a destruction of beings and ecology. Then, as in the previous stanza, trees are again linked to humans: they are kings when standing (they have “crowns”), and subservient subjects when felled (on their “knees,” as if begging). The final personification is the death throes or tremblings the trees suffer before dying, their “seizures.” That is, their leafy tops (“northern”) can be seen to shake before the trees topple and fall.
Stanza 4: From the effect of bulldozers on trees and land, Kunitz now moves to the larger picture affected by both the presence and absence of trees. He imagines children of the past (“ghosts”) playing in the trees’ shade, growing up alongside the trees. The poet also imagines nature (“the green world”) with a book, perhaps its own biography or photo album, turning another worn (“foxed”) page, perhaps reading about or viewing another slaughter in its own history. At stanza’s end, the children disappear into “their grievous age,” which could indicate either crippling old age and death or the era in which the children live, the 1950s, when suburban developments flourished. The word “suburbs,” short for suburban, indicates a kind of environment where trees are cut down and substituted with housing developments. It can also represent a place where people sometimes grow “grievously” into old age because they become isolated and preoccupied only with raising children and maintaining property. This is the suburbs as the breeding place of sameness and mediocrity, to some, a living death.
Stanza 5: In the last stanza, the trees are down and uprooted, leaving behind craters “too big for hearts,” the phrase pointing to the inability of humans to love, care, or protect trees. From being maimed in root and branch, the killing field is now complete— roots are now “amputated” from the soil, exposed for all to see. The poet compares the huge snarls of roots to gorgons, mythological female creatures with snakes for hair who turned those looking at them into stone.
With this vision of a pock-marked landscape, the poet imagines the cornered lot as a cratered moon, a dead landscape. But others do not necessarily see the scene as the poet does. They see it like the joking neighbor at the beginning, or like drivers glancing for a “witness-moment” in their rearview mirrors, giving the scene no more than a passing or backward glance on their way to other scenes and concerns more important, or more subject to their control. By the final line and word, the poem has come full circle: from producers of oil (Standard Oil) clearing the land at the beginning of the poem, to consumers of oil driving over cleared and paved land at poem’s end. For only a moment, drivers might have the opportunity to link their own practice to the unsightly mess on the corner lot.

 

Themes of Life and Death

Kunitz was born in the industrial town of Worchester, Massachusetts in 1905. He was raised by his mother; his father had died before his birth. He was subjected to anti-Semitism as a youth. (Worchester is built on seven hills, each of which was inhabited by a different ethnic group. At that time these groups remained apart and oftentimes were antagonistic to the others.) In an interview with Leslie Kelen he said, “I was curious about the world of possibilities beyond those other alien hills (in Worchester).” Later in another interview he said, “In my youth, as might be expected, I had little knowledge of the world to draw on. But I had fallen in love with language and was excited by ideas.” To Leslie Kelen he also remarked, “I’m not a nature poet, but I am a poet of the natural world.” Kunitz’s five stanza poem reveals his love of nature and shows his fascination with special forms of language in order to present his ideas. The poem takes a look at the modern world’s relentless quest for oil at the expense of the environment. In it, the narrator stands to the side and watches and comments on the changes occurring before him.
In Touch Melt, published in 1995 in The Later Poems: New and Selected, the question is asked, “What makes the engine go?” The answer is: “Desire, desire, desire.” It is “desire” for oil-consuming machines that pushes the oil company to seek more sources of oil. A new and “grievous age” makes unquenchable and immediate demands for more oil. The consequence of this desire is that the future has become dependent on oil, just as the past has been. And so to satisfy the future, the present now destroys the past.
Kunitz once said, “I know … that I am living and dying at once.” This acceptance of life and death simultaneously is a major theme in his poetry. In this poem the theme of death in life is reintroduced as the theme of past and future. The future informs the past, just as the past determines the future. In Kunitz’s poem the future will destroy the past upon which it will be built. As the bulldozers and other machines test “the virtue of the soil” and remove the greenery, they leave a cratered moon-like world. The forsythia, hydrangeas, and privet hedge all fall to the power of the machines, as one part of the natural world is uprooted and destroyed in order to find another. With the felling of each “great-grandfather” the link between the past and the future is reduced. The ancient trees, representatives of the past, yield to the machines that now bring them “to their knees.”
Ironically, this attack on trees is also an attack on the primal origin of oil itself: the prehistoric accumulation of forest material which under pressure and over time is turned into oil. These trees would not be turned into oil, but they are descendants of those trees from ages past. The oil is used by the past-driven machine to destroy the present-day trees to gain access to more prehistoric oil deposits that will be needed to fuel future machines in their quest for more oil! And the cycle continues without end. In this search for oil the needs of the future destroy two pasts: the oil itself and the memories of the past. The cycle brings to mind the ancient imagery of a snake eating its own tail until nothing exists except the memory of the snake. But in this poem, even the memory disappears.
In the headlong quest for new sources, the oilseeking Standard Oil Company attacks the landscape, laying low everything in its path. This is the environmental equivalent to General Sherman’s march to the sea during the American Civil War and it is reported using warlike imagery and phrases. The attack on the “lawn” and the neighborhood soil is as frantic as the children’s games. This event brings to mind the phrase often repeated during the Vietnam war: We had to destroy the village, in order to save it. In this poem, the neighborhood is destroyed in order to provide it with the oil it will need in order to survive in the oil-dependant future. The image left on that “corner lot” is one fleeting rearview mirror glimpse, the “witness-moment” of the cratered moonscape (a bombed landscape image) disappearing into the distance.
The ghostly images of playing children soon disappear because those memories depend on the existence of the old trees under which they played their games “in the shade.” The children’s frantic play, as they go “racing beyond their childhood” into a future of their own, is replaced by the frantic destruction of the gasoline-drunken machines as they charge into their own future. But each enters a different future. The children, who played in the past, enter a future which is the present for the narrator. The bulldozers, which work in the present, move into an unknown future. The narrator stands in the present, examining the past as it moves into the future—a paradox of the past, present and future all occurring at once.
An important poetic construction comes into play in the poem: the use of hyphenated words. In each stanza Kunitz uses a specially crafted word to create new meanings. “Forsythia-forays and hydrangea- raids” in stanza two create new images of plants and flowers with the war being waged on them by the machines. These new words combine the tender innocence of flowering shrubs with the brutality of war. The word “witness-moment” combines the instant of glancing into a rear-view mirror with the intensity of witnessing an event. It is more than just a casual seeing of the event because to witness carries a stronger involvement with it. It means to attest or to affirm an event to be true.
In the fourth stanza, “death-foxed” is Kunitz’s manufactured word that combines several meanings into one. An old meaning for “foxed” is intoxicated. Another correlation with the word deathfoxed is the old word death-bird, a carrion eater. The combination of these meanings at this point creates a new meaning: being intoxicated with the death of the “green world” in the recently devoured neighborhood.
The passing moment of defoliation is also witnessed by others. Some see it through the rear-view mirrors of their gasoline consuming cars. In the fleeting “witness-moment” the driver sees the past, literally the scenery behind him, but continues on the road to the future. In so doing the driver fulfills his part in the course of events according to Picard as the road ahead, his future, soon becomes the road in the mirror, his past.
The red wagon, a non-oil-dependent vehicle, is important to the narrator, because it combines the images of cheerful child’s play and the non-oildependant children (as in Kunitz’s youth). But these are soon replaced by the oil-powered machines that eat at the greenery of the neighborhood and the automobiles that carry witnesses past it.
The machines wage their impersonal war and bring the tree “giants to their knees.” There are no people are involved in the attacks. Only machines attack the trees and only the trees suffer from the attack. The implication that the machines have taken over the world in an insatiable attempt to quench their thirst for oil products is conveyed by the narrator’s inaction. The humans (the narrator and the watching neighbors) are passive observers. The drivers of passing cars are also detached as they witness the events as a reflected image in a rear-view mirror.
The boldly stated environmental concern addressed in this poem is especially poignant because it was published in 1958 (in Selected Poems, 1928–1958 ), when environmentalism was a littleknown concept. The result of his far-reaching vision is this well-crafted little poem. The “intellectual courage that insists on the truth” as he saw it allowed him to raise the issues in his poem. “If I hadn’t had an urgent impulse, if the poem didn’t seem to me terribly important,” Kunitz said, “I never wanted to write it and didn’t.” Kunitz grappled with images that have become all too commonplace. But many trees and landscapes have been sacrificed since this poem first appeared. He once revealed in the New York Times: “The deepest thing I know is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that dialogue. It is a rather terrifying thought that is at the root of much of my poetry.” That combination of life and death, as present and past, is at the heart of this poem.
Source: Carl Mowery, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Mowery holds a Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, in Rhetoric and Composition and American Literature. He has written numerous essays for the Gale Group.

Complexity of Word Choice
In the following essay, the author examines Kunitz’s “The War Against the Trees,” paying close attention to the complexity of the poet’s word choice.
“The War Against the Trees” appears in several popular classroom anthologies of poetry, yet little about the poem exists in the biographical literature about Kunitz, or in the substantial criticism focused on his Selected Poems (1958), the volume in which “The War Against the Trees” appears. Perhaps this is because the poem seems self-evident. Or, from a different angle, so fragile that vigorous investigation would “break” it. While these arguments are not without their virtues (as is true for many poems), “The War Against the Trees” is neither so simple that deeper analysis cannot reveal its complexity, nor so fragile it cannot be shaken up without shattering its message. A close reading of the poem, with special attention paid to Kunitz’s word choice, will help to unpack its complexity.
In the first line of “The War Against the Trees,” “standard oil,” a proper noun, is not capitalized. The effect is to diminish the company’s real value, the poet, careful to avoid showing respect for a company bulldozing a parcel of land home to trees, flowers, and a vibrant underground ecology. The man who has sold the corner property is, Kunitz writes, “joking” with others watching the “show.” “Laughed” is not employed because the word would seem a direct response to the “show,” and would connote direct joy in the destruction, a kind of sadism. “Joking,” however, indicates a response less evil, an unconcern about, or ignorance of, the fuller meanings of this destruction. To these neighbors (or at least the man who sold the property), it is as if these trees and flowers were inanimate objects or mere things. This is not bloodsport, but a celebration of action, of noise and movement of bulldozers, the crash of big trees. The tone of this “celebration” is underscored by the description of the bulldozers, which are “drunk with gasoline.” Drunkenness personifies these machines, possibly prompting readers to think of drunken males in cars on a destructive spree, and then to bring readers back to the watching neighbors—are they drunk as well? Whatever the case, these neighbors would likely have been just as satisfied having attended a demolition derby or monster truck rally. This is a scene no one except the poet understands as a killing field. Instead, this seems a harmless arena to an audience as oblivious to the killing as are the bulldozers.
In “The War Against the Trees,” personification works both ways—to vilify and dignify. In the second stanza, personification is employed not only to vilify bulldozers, but to dignify plants. Kunitz casts the plants as under attack by the bulldozersas- tanks. Unfortunately, the metaphor begins to backfire if taking tall trees seems like taking an enemy bunker of big guns or missile launchers. But Kunitz prevents such thoughts from proceeding when he calls the trees “great-grandfathers,” “lopped and maimed.” This directs the comparison away from trees as enemies to trees as human-like victims, especially through the attribute of having severed limbs. Bulldozers represented as cars full of drunk males or tanks, and trees characterized as old men with severed limbs not only portrays this happening as an unfair fight, but as a destruction of the past (grandfathers) by the present (youth), a theme revisited in the poem’s fourth stanza.
The third stanza’s “hireling engines,” might conjure up an image of mercenaries (a further personification of bulldozers) hired by Standard Oil to “pacify” the site, eradicate from this corner lot any obstacles to development making it “safe” for business. “Hacking” is a verb describing a repulsive act, building empathy for the trees by casting them as living victims. Kunitz’s sensitivity extends not only to plants, but to what are usually disliked and unconsidered ground-dwellers, moles and grubs. Kunitz, however, dignifies the moles as human, as possessors of homes with “halls” under attack from humans and their machines. Grubs are exalted by having “dominions” making it not just grub homes suffering an attack, but grub communities and lands. From the ground’s smallest and most hidden creatures, Kunitz fast cuts to the largest and sometimes most visible, the “giants” of the sky: trees. These giant grandfathers, king-or queen-like with their crowns, are now humbled, forced to their “knees” in submission to the new, self-crowned kings of the wood, humans. This exaltation of plants and “lower” animals is the kind of sensibility describable as biophilia, care for all that lives. Kunitz, however, goes further by dignifying plants and animals, and, at the same time, vilifying humans. Or more precisely, vilifying a specified set of human actions.
If personification is Kunitz’s tool to enliven and vilify machines, and, in addition, extra-enliven and dignify nature, a rather opposite technique is employed on people, one depicting them as not fully alive. If, in the first stanza, the neighbors can be said to be “dead” to the import of the events in front of them, the fourth stanza is inhabited by the “ghosts of children.” The word “shade” enhances the real and figurative deaths in this scene. Shade describes not only the shade of trees but, in a long literary tradition, the state of a person after death, as in the phrase describing the afterworld, “land of the shades.” Children playing in the shade of trees, “racing beyond their childhood,” says Kunitz, disappear into “grievous old age,” die and become shades. Kunitz seems to say that an absence of treeshade— which describes many a sparsely-arbored, fifties suburb—hastens people into the “suburbs” of human old age, and finally, the “suburbs” of death (life as urban), a final move to the land of shades. Such a claim might be explained this way: eradication of trees and plants helps kill off memories of what was, pushes humans increasingly into hope for an unknown and suspect future, hastens time and therefore, the approach of death. Nostalgia and cognizance, on the other hand, work to slow time, to make aging less grievous, less, if you will, suburban. “Suburbs,” then, not only describes a place outside the “urb(an),” but a purgatory on the edge of life, an anteroom to the land of the shades.
In stanza four, “the green world,” or nature, is again personified—nature turns the page of an old book, its own biography. Nature has a long tradition of comparison to a book, one that with the Book of God comprised the two-volume set of the Book of Life. Nature turning the pages of its own book is a kind of objectification (nature as book), personification, and deification (nature as a kind of god or demiurge) rolled into one. The particular page nature turns is “death-foxed,” not just yellowed or brown with age, but possibly inhabited by images of nature’s losses like a page of deceased relatives in a family photo album. If the picture conjured up from Kunitz’s description is of nature sadly turning the pages of its own history, mourning its losses at the hand of its own children (humanity), the reader’s response might be one similar to Christ crucified: empathy for a god under attack from its own, from those who know not what they do.
As one might expect from the title, “The War Against the Trees,” the poem’s last stanza brings readers back to those victims of “war,” those “great-grandfathers of the town / So freshly lopped and maimed,” those “giants” brought “to their knees” in a “seizure” of death. In this last stanza, the trees are toppled, their roots exposed. The craters left behind are “too big for hearts,” these giants being larger in size and in sensitivity than the humans killing them. Kunitz calls the exposed roots, “club-roots” which is also the name for a plant disease caused by a slime mold. Symptoms of the disease include large malformed roots. Because this definition does not fit well with these toppled, healthy elms, club-root is probably a play on club foot, defined as “a congenitally deformed or distorted foot.” Add this personification of tree roots to the word, “amputated,” that follows, and readers are not only presented with murdered bodies, but deformed corpses. The image of club-roots radically morphs with the word, “gorgons,” female monsters with snakes for hair who turn those looking at them to stone. “Gorgons” is a somewhat imperfect attribution because the word might provoke a conflation of trees with monsters rather than tree corpses as monstrous. Apart from this quibble, “gorgons” is effective because the exposure, the sight, of “club-roots” indicates that the once-green earth is being desertified into a treeless, stony moonscape. These gorgons, however, are different from the blindness-causing gorgons of myth since the club-roots do not cause blindness, but are blind, another injury to these sympathy-provoking trees already “maimed,” “lopped,” “amputated,” and brought “to their knees.”
In the last stanza’s fourth line, the blindness metaphor is mixed with an aural component when the gorgon roots cry “Moon,” a kind of synesthesia where a sight (and site) is so offensive it “cries out” to be heard. Yet Kunitz seems doubtful anyone else hears the trees crying out, even if “caught / in the rear-view mirrors of passing cars.” More likely it is that upon seeing the site, drivers will not view it as a slaughter, like the poet. Or, if they do, Kunitz thinks they will be too busy to give it much thought. And if a driver should stop her car and ask Mr. Kunitz (is he not one of the witnesses?) who it is that’s bulldozing the land, he just might answer, “All of us.”
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Semansky’s most recent collection of poems, Blindsided, has been published by 26 Books of Portland, Oregon and nominated for an Oregon book award.

Theme
Growth and Development“ The War Against the Trees” recounts the bulldozing of a plot of wooded land recently purchased by an oil company and the effect of this destruction on the town and speaker. Throughout the 1950s, an average of three thousand acres of farmland were bulldozed per day for tract housing. Such development was partially enabled by preexisting roads allowing commutes to and from outlying areas. In the fifties, exploding suburban development (houses and stores), caused, in turn, construction of newer and larger roads to accommodate the ever rising numbers of cars that transformed the United States into an oil-dependant nation. And finally, in this chain reaction, increasing oil consumption led to the bulldozing of more land (as in “The War Against the Trees”) to look for oil and provide to the consumer. While Kunitz does not tell readers exactly what purpose the poem’s cleared land will serve, he does write that the bulldozers operate at the behest of Standard Oil, one of the largest oil companies in the world. Against this background, the poem supplies a foreground. Whether slated for offices or drilling operations, the land is eradicated of its flora and denuded of its fauna for the sake of what is usually called growth and development. While growth and development are usually considered positive terms, Kunitz paints the practices behind those words with a more critical brush. “The bulldozers, drunk with gasoline” ready land for more oil production (whether through drilling or administration of delivery systems) thereby enabling mobility. Greater mobility, in turn, leads to more bulldozing of land for roads, development, and oil production. This cycle from production to consumption, commonly referred to as “growth and development,” Kunitz calls “war.”
War and Peace
If the poet refers to growth and development as a war against nature, it appears he thinks there are more battalions of soldiers than the one driving the bulldozers. Another regiment works for the oil company and still another drives cars (Kunitz seems to have left out only road and store builders). Growth and development are usually considered peacetime activities, but Kunitz construes them as acts of war. Human activity can be divided into two major categories, wartime and peacetime. People already know that war kills, not just people, but plants and animals as well. But in “The War Against the Trees,” readers are asked to consider that peace also kills, that peace is also war, less against masses of humanity, but more against masses of plants and animals. The result, as Kunitz sees it, is a devastated battlefield replete with craters, a moonscape devoid of life—human, animal, and vegetable.
Memory and Reminiscence
When the poem’s “corner lot” is bulldozed, plants are killed and animals destroyed and exiled (“the green world turned its death-foxed page”). Something else is killed as well: The past. In the third stanza Kunitz seems to recall a childhood filled with trees, where children played and grew up in the shade. Now he sees an aging process he terms “grievous,” partially because it occurs in a figurative or real suburb with little flora and fauna, and no wilderness. This denuded space is also metaphorically the space of memory, now wiped clean of fond reminiscence, scoured of nostalgia called upon during the often difficult process of growing old, of being what is often termed, “replaced.” If the trees are killed off, the past will be too, and, Kunitz thinks, will no more be a “place” to revisit. The only thing left will be a future devoid of plants and animals and refilled with a very human culture of growth and development. Neither of these terms, the poem suggests, should be confused with progress

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