The Mill: A Winter Pastoral (9)

Tuesday, December 21st, 1971

December 21, 1971 Day Shift


Sap down, morning dark
Rooster sleeps, infant coughs, wife groans
Stove cold, pipes froze, truck stuck
Uncoffied and late to work.

Screen Tender empties sewer samples
“Goundwood down for cleanup
Pollution controls suspended
Today we flush the system out.”

Thousands of gallons of woodpulp and bleach
Zinc hydrosufite, sodium sulfate
Slosh through the flume into the saltchuck
Pablum for fish, heavily spiced.

In the Towncrier photo the Forestry Superintendant
Stands proud on the butt of a thousand year old fir
They’ve finished logging the old growth grove at Goat Lake.
It was one of the last virgin stands near the coast of B.C.

Cruised, felled, limbed, bucked
Skidded, yarded, loaded, trucked
Dumped, boomed, sorted, tugged
Towed, spiked, barked, lugged.
Ripped, slashed, cross-cut.

Pulped, shredded, screened
Bleached, tested, cleaned
Blended, thickened, died
Rolled, pressed, dried
Wound, rewound, finished.

The Times is all that’s left
For breakfast.

When darkness holds dominion here tonight
We’ll find and cut a sapling hemlock tree
To celebrate renewal of the light
And hope for rebirth of the land and sea.

The Runner and the Trees

Monday, November 14th, 1983


The trees are there
when talking stops.
They wait
for the runner.


At the track
before dawn
no sound
beyond breathing
but the freeway.
and scares the runner; he stops
and notices the green-wattle tree
It softens the noise,
it freshens his blood.


Pursuing a youth
made lovelier yet by flight
through woods he runs
imploring recognition.
Outdistanced and breathless
she prays for escape
then stands.
Her heart still beats against his touch
as bark encloses the soft breast,
arms twist into branches
hair flattens to leaves,
and swift feet root underground.
They are crowned
with laurel.


Last night’s storm
cleaned the branches
but left a mess
of yellow liquidambar leaves
on the wet, black pavement.
The runner’s eye arranges them
in passing.


The trees help the runner
reach his goal.
For his motion
they exchange stillness.


The Message of the Trees

Tuesday, December 27th, 1983

[Published in the Western Chapter News of the International Society of Arboriculture, March 1983]

Readers of The Western Chapter News may be interested in two remarkable tree books published in recent years but not reviewed in the trade journals. They are Trees by Andreas Feininger (New York: Penguin, 1978, $9.94) and The Tree by John Fowles and Frank Horvat (New York: Little Brown, 1980, $24.95). Large formatted and lavishly produced, both books combine stunning photographs with informative, provocative and beautifully written texts. Their authors enjoy worldwide artistic reputations: Feininger exhibits in major museums and has published numerous other photographic studies; Fowles is a best-selling British novelist, author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Horvat is an eminent French landscape photographer.

Though none of these artists is a tree professional, their work displays extensive knowledge; more important, it expresses the kind of lifelong respect and affection for trees that lies at the heart of the arborist’s vocation. Like truly skilled tree work itself, these books represent a labor of love, an outpouring of praise, and and application of human art inspired by the art of nature. By deepening awareness of the value and meaning of trees, the authors hope ultimately not only to enrich human experience but also to save trees and forests from the wanton destruction to which they are still subjected.

In his introduction to Trees, Feininger states that he has created

…a new kind of book not a text nor a manual
nor a tree identification book, nor still another book proving
trees are beautiful, but a tree appreciation book.

In fact both these books promote tree appreciation in similar ways. First is through simple presentation. By selecting, composing and framing each tree portrait, the photographer brings forward aesthetic qualities–qualities of strength and fragility, of symmetry and variation, of balance and tension–that normally pass unobserved. Recalling Feininger’s shot of the massive central trunk of a twisted oak in a German park, I stop my morning run to admire the gnarly Quercus agrifolia in my neighbor’s yard. Or stuck in freeway traffic, I flash on Horvat’s portrait of the Wych Elm silouetted by a January mist, and suddenly I’m greeted with the sight of an Ulmus americana arching its limbs over an Arco station.

Appreciation of trees is also fostered by these books’ focus on detail. They slow and thereby enrich our perceptions of pattern, texture and light: Horvat’s row of pollarded sycamore crowns, Feininger’s mulberry leaves outlined black against the white sky, or his sweetgum leaves outlined against the dark background foliage. In such treatments of detail, the artist’s gift emerges. For while a lengthy series of photographs of bark in a tree identification book becomes schematic and dull, Feininger’s seventeen-shot sequence on trunks manages to build steadily to a dramatic visual climax. Each full-page portrait varies light, camera angle, distance, background and composition, delighting us with the variety contained in repetition. (more…)

Tending Landmarks of the Landscape

Friday, June 1st, 1984
Arbor Age 1984

Present Perfect

Sunday, January 5th, 1986

[published in THE STANFORD MAGAZINE, Winter 1986]

Though it was Friday afternoon, I was in no hurry to get back to the yard.

This was the last day of my part-time employment with the Stanford tree-trimming crew, a job I’d taken during the summer of 1985 to help make ends meet on an English lecturer’s salary. I had enjoyed the job’s remoteness from my regular sedentary occupation, its involvement with the physical resources of the university, and the opportunity to work in exceptionally large, beautiful trees.

So my partner on the tree crew waited below, while I swung back and forth, suspended on the climbing rope, and stared up through the canopy of the tree we’d been working in all day.

When I finally came down, however, I got a reprieve: The foreman dispatched my partner and me to another “short job.” A large oak on the campus property of a Stanford professor was showing some rot at the base of its trunk; it needed to be cleaned and patched. “Marx,” the foreman said, “I think you’ll like this tree.”

The tree in question was hidden from the street by a thick hedge. We walked down a narrow driveway that tunneled though the hedge and came out on a sight that stopped me cold.

Near the edge of a sloping lawn rose a colossal creature with a massive trunk, serpentine limbs, and deliquescent twigs. Its gnarled and attenuated forms seemed to crouch, grope, and stretch, filling every inch of the hedge-enclosed yard.

I don’t know how long I stood, absorbed by the tree’s immense serenity, its pure, motionless life. As my thinking slowly returned, I walked warily around the perimeter of its branches. The tree was a valley oak, Quercus lobata , displaying features typical of the breed: an asymmetrical inclination, a wide lateral spread of limbs, an open scaffolding of convoluted branches. But this was a unique specimen.
The cyclopean trunk, about 25 feet around at its base, roiled in frozen turbid shapes. A few feet up, it split into two huge sections. One cantilevered at an impossible horizontal angle for about twelve feet before spiraling aloft to a six-story height. The other thickened to a diameter of six feet and rose at a slight backward lean, towering like a cliff face of congealed lava bands. The lowest limbs drooped over their 50-foot spans to within inches of the grass and then, in defiance of gravity and expectation, turned their heavily foliated ends upward to bob gently in the breeze.

Someone had counted 170 rings in a limb that had been amputated earlier; comparing its girth to that of the trunk, one could estimate the tree’s age at about 500 years. As I came nearer to the trunk, I felt the haunting quality of that longevity, a reverence for what John Fowles, in his book The Tree , calls ” . . . a time span humanity cannot conceive. A pastness, a presentness, a skill with tenses the writer in me knows he will never know; partly out of his own inadequacies, and partly because there are tenses human language has yet to invent.”

In this tree I recognized one of the tenses for which Fowles was searching: the present perfect. The treehas beenwhere it is since it was born. It manifests all of its past within its present as accretion or as scar. It responds to stimulus not by action, which disappears, but by growth, which remains.

One limb was resting on two vertical redwood crutches that had been put in place after removal of a damaged branch on which it had previously leaned. Since downward stress is needed to stimulate the growth of “reaction wood,” buttressing at the trunk that holds branches aloft in their outward and upward reach toward the sun, the long absence of the normal pull of gravity had rendered it unable to support itself. The sculptured masses of this tree’s central frame were indeed muscular, built up by the process of ongoing work.

The removed limb had been hit by a mail truck a few years back and protective callus was already beginning to creep around the edges of the recent surgical cut. A tree cannot run from harm or heal injured tissue, so it seals up, or “compartmentalizes,” the damaged area on all sides and continues to grow around it. Approaching the trunk, I noticed a round swelling about 30 inches in diameter bisected by a deep groove, the trace of a major branch it must have lost centuries ago.

Not only was this tree a unique individual, but it was one of the few healthy-looking members of its species in the area. For the past two years, an epidemic of leaf mildew and twig dieback had been decimating the blue oaks and the valley oaks on the campus and its environs. Most people were unaware of the epidemic because it had not affected the more common coast live oaks and because the deciduous blues and valley oaks were normally bare during part of the year.

The next Monday, although I was no longer with the tree crew, I returned to see the tree again and to find out more of its history. Professor Hadley Kirkman and his wife, who have owned the property since 1950, told me that the tree may well have been responsible for the location of the university president’s house across the street and the faculty settlement in the area.

At the tum of the century Professor William Durand, the founder of Stanford’s Aeronautics Department, and his wife fell in love with the tree and its grassy hilltop location and declared, “Here we will build our house.” The house, completed in 1904, was designed by Arthur Clark, who went on to build, across the street from the Durands’ house, the Lou Henry Hoover House, home of the university’s president since 1944.

Over the years the Kirkmans have treasured their proximity to the noble tree, observed it closely, and made it accessible to whoever would appreciate it. They have offered it as a setting for university functions, weddings, and children’s parties. Art classes have often met there to sketch it, and a television production filled its limbs with actors for a large ensemble scene.

Thc Kirkmans and I persuaded the head of the university’s grounds department to accept responsibility for the tree’s maintenance and to officially name it the Durand Oak. (The university is normally not responsible for grounds maintenance on privately owned or leased properties on campus.) Two expert consultants determined that the decayed area was no cause for alarm and that all the tree needed was spraying and pruning.

To prune the Durand Oak! It was a tree trimmer’s chance of a lifetime. I asked to do it; my request was granted. Late on a Friday morning in early October, following my freshman English class, I returned to the tree. With saddle, steel-cored safety lariat, and braided climbing rope, I would climb to the top of the tree and work my way down.

As I ascended, the trunk narrowed, the bark smoothed out, the tree grew younger. In hollows along the way I scooped out raccoon and owl droppings and little piles of soil growing saplings and flowers. What an idyllic vocation, I thought to myself, above the roofs and streets of the world, heeding the call of simian ancestors, of childhood recollections, of poets’ fantasies:

Meanwhile in the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide
There like a bird, it sits and sings
Then whets and combs its silver wings.

(Andrew Marvell, “The Garden”)

The light brightened and the view widened. As I got higher and more exposed, I hugged the trunk tightly and felt my heart pound against the bark, as if it were pumping sap along with blood. At the topmost fork, I tied in my two ropes and relaxed. I was suspended by the waist, so both hands and feet could swing free.

At first, the work was not far removed from play, “our delightful task/To prune these growing Plants” says Adam in Milton’s Paradise. I slapped off the decayed wood that was dangerously ready to drop and hacked at heavy clumps of mistletoe that tore loose easily and tumbled down below. But when it came to removing live branches that had been diseased by the parasite, the going got rougher.

Hanging in a gravity-defying position for maximum extension and leverage, I had to find the angle of the cut that wouldn’t damage the branch-bark ridge, support the ten-foot pole saw’s weight while making the undercut, and push-pull endlessly through the top cut until the tenacious oak fibers would finally crack.

The unshaded sun was making me sweat. The twist of my waist, the bulge of my forearm took on the contorted shapes of the creature with which I felt locked in struggle. It was time to use the chainsaw.

Once the eye targets a cut, there is a fierce desire to carry it through and see the form it leaves. I welcomed the shrieking noise of the saw and its fifteen-pound weight in my hand. They provided the surge of power I needed to get on with the job. I had to restrain the rush of adrenalin with two memories from previous tree-trimming assignments: a sliced kneecap and the jagged edge of a climbing rope.

As I worked my way down the tree that afternoon, I pondered my experience at the top. Rather than pastoral gardening, it was a dangerous effort of creation. Like most artisans, arborists labor both for and against the media in which they work. While the dead wood and the overgrowth “seem to long for a change for more ordered forms,” the pruner’s “love for his arboreal element makes him, as all real lovers do, become merciless even to the point of hurting, wounding and amputating so as to help growth and give shape” (Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees ).

I realized that the drama of my encounter with the Durand Oak did not contrast but instead connected with what I did in the classroom, the library, the study. For the perilous risks of going out on a limb and the “merciless love” that helps growth and gives shape are as much a part of teaching and writing as of trimming trees.

Everything’s Dead but the Tree

Tuesday, June 3rd, 1986

[A lecture to freshmen on the last day of a year-long class in “Literature and the Arts in Western Culture” at Stanford University–June 3, l986]

Sisyphus’ setting, with its flaking rock and its hot barren landscape is the last of a long series of images of hostile wastelands we have been contemplating. Barren deserts, steamy jungles, blasted battlefields, rocky islands, polar ice floes, gothic swamps, wind-swept marshes, blackened cities make up the backdrop of much modern European literature–a setting appropriate to the period that brought us World War I and II and which may yet bring us nuclear winter. Most of these demonic landscapes are symbolic, representing as we have learned, the burnt-out quality of the modern: its loss of spiritual faith, loss of intellectual and moral clarity, loss of aesthetic pleasure, loss of belief in society, the family, the self.

But this symbolic imagery of physical desolation has a literal meaning as well, one that we have not encountered much in the works we discussed. Western culture, and probably world culture as well, has been involved since the beginning of the modern period not only in its own self- destruction, but in the destruction of the earth, the environment which has bred and nursed it. In “From a Plane,” a short poem included in your miscellany of poetry, Denise Levertov recognizes from the air “the great body…torn apart/ raked and raked by our claws” –treated by us like Lear and Gloucester by their ungrateful children. (more…)

Copy and Imitation

Saturday, April 28th, 2001

John Milton, Paradise Lost: 7: 309-338 [copied and imitated from Genesis 1-2]

Let th’ Earth
Put forth the verdant Grass, Herb yeilding Seed,
And Fruit Tree yeilding Fruit after her kind;
Whose Seed is in her self upon the Earth.
He scarce had said, when the bare Earth, till then
Desert and bare, unsightly, unadorn’d,
Brought forth the tender Grass, whose verdure clad
Her Universal Face with pleasant green,
Then Herbs of every leaf, that sudden flour’d
Op’ning thir various colours, and made gay
Her bosom smelling sweet: and these scarce blown,
Forth flourish’t thick the clustring Vine, forth crept
The swelling Gourd, up stood the cornie Reed
Embattell’d in her field: add the humble Shrub,
And Bush with frizl’d hair implicit: last
Rose as in Dance the stately Trees, and spred
Thir branches hung with copious Fruit; or gemm’d
Thir Blossoms: with high Woods the Hills were crownd,
With tufts the vallies & each fountain side,
With borders long the Rivers.

Steven Marx, “April the First”

The Spring god talked the green world into being.
She said to earth, “Push up the verdant grasses
And all the vegetation bearing seed
The fruit trees yielding their own distinct fruits
To hold and spread the seeds of progeny.”
And earth no sooner heard, still bleak and bare,
But that her crust burst forth with tender Grass
That softened to a face of smiling green,
And then with broad-leafed herbs that sudden bloomed
To dress her breast in luscious colored flowers
And fragrance sweet. And still more growth,
The lengthy vines emerged and soon grew thick
Swelling with squash and pumpkin. Ranks of grain
Sprang up in fields and shrubby chapparel
Sprouted impen’trable thickets. Climaxing
Above this growth, majestic trees rose
Reached out their overarching limbs adroop
With fruits and flowers, and crowned in groves
The hills, gave shade to springs riparian,
And bordered watercourses.

Exchange with Richard Powers

Friday, February 28th, 2020

From: “Powers, Richard S” <>

Subject: RE: ATTN: Richard Powers

Date: February 28, 2020 at 8:52:00 AM PST

To: “Steven R. Marx” <>

Dear Steven Marx,

What pleasure it was to get your good and thoughtful letter.  Your words were very satisfying to hear, and I was delighted to hear of the connections between your personal journey and the journey I made while writing The Overstory.  It also moved me to learn of Eagle Waltz, whose productive response to a challenging situation would have made a wonderful addition to my fictional version of that challenge.  I look forward someday to hiking that trail he mapped and built.  Thanks for telling me about it, and for taking the time to write me with your generous words.

With gratitude,

Richard Powers

From: Steven R. Marx
Sent: Wednesday, February 26, 2020 3:31 PM
To:; Powers, Richard S
Subject: ATTN: Richard Powers

Dear Richard Powers

I’ve been meaning to write to you since last September when I finished reading The Overstory.  I kept putting it off until now because I felt shy of requesting the attention of an author I so admired. The fact that the book affected me so deeply and personally was outweighed by reluctance to add to what must be a heavy load of fan mail from others in whom it’s created a need to share some of their stories.  But after all this time, and as I ready to tackle The Echo Maker, the resistance has crumbled.

I learned about The Overstory from Eagle Waltz, an old friend from back-to-the-land hippy days near the end of the road in Lund, British Columbia, where I moved from New York with my wife Jan in 1970, lived in the woods for nine years, and where we return annually with our children and grandchildren. Eagle was another exile at the time, from Germany, who was entranced by the wilderness and horrified, like all of of us, by the systematic destruction of old growth forests whose grave markers we lived among in the form of gargantuan springboard-nicked stumps.  Rather than merely learning to live with that grief, Eagle decided to try to save the few grand specimens still scattered through endless slash and second or third growth plantations by mapping and building a 150 mile-long hiking trail  connecting the old sages. He calculated that opening the back country to locals and eventually tourists would produce support for his lifelong efforts to negotiate with logging companies and the government to spare the last remnant, which it has done.

The book’s connection with Eagle and its portrayal of the pain of outsiders who moved to the woods and ended up in industrial logging zones created one bond.  But then there was Stanford/Palo Alto/East Palo Alto.  I had moved there first in 1963 to go graduate school in English in order to avoid the draft after being kicked out of the Peace Corps for being “too intellectual” and having “the wrong attitude toward authority.” Jan and I met at a poetry seminar In the Free University of Palo Alto, got into lots of trouble and fun as student activists, married in the backyard of a cottage we rented in EPA, moved to NYC  where I taught at Columbia for three years and then emigrated to Canada. Nine years later we returned to Palo Alto so I could complete the dissertation on pastoral ideals and the life cycle I’d started fourteen years earlier. My interest in trees was rekindled when, unable to secure decent academic employment, I became  a part-time arborist.  A couple of years later upon yet another return to Stanford as lecturer I also worked on the tree crew and wrote a piece for the Stanford Magazine about the combination. After four years, and having secured  a tenure track job at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I gave a  capstone talk for “Literature and  the  Arts in Western Culture” entitled “Everythihg’s Dead but the Tree.”

Its clear from descriptions of other books of yours I plan to read that trees are but one region of your exploration, and I look forward to discovering some of the others. But the striking intersections between the incidents, places and passions so compellingly narrrated in this novel and episodes in my life make me feel uniquely part of The Overstory.


Steven Marx