Further tree news

Following up on Kilmer, trees, and modernism! I'm reading George Lakoff's classic Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, and it discusses this very issue, of the naming and categorizing of trees (pp. 31-38). In particular, it points to an article by J.W.D. Dougherty which finds that, while distinguishing between "maple" and "oak" might be "natural" for the Tzeltal Mayans, it is not so natural for urban Americans, who think of both as just "trees".

Dougherty says: "[T]here is a shift in the most salient taxonomic rank of a hierarchy toward increasingly more inclusive levels as the overall salience of the domain itself declines and the taxonomic structure devolves."

But we readers of poetry already knew this. So I want to point to Kilmer embracing this urban, modern unawareness of tree distinctions, an inability or disinclination to thinking of "oak" as a "natural" category -- to think of cats as "mammals" rather than "cats", perhaps? -- and also perhaps suggest this as part of the poem's popular appeal. It will not get bogged down in the distinctions of yesterday! He will strive to invent a cloying sentimality for the twentieth century, for the pre-World War I optimism of the future, today!


  1. Eccentric Scholar said...

    You wrote of "the poem's popular appeal," but I think you meant "poplar."  

  2. Surjective said...

    I think you overstate the case with cats. Us urban folk keep mammals as pets and care enough to be specific. And the somewhat less urban folk like to boast about planting Yoshino cherry trees in the yard rather than "planting a plant."

    But what strikes me most is your quote of Dougherty. There's irony in such a complex sentence telling us about a cause and effect of simplified language.  

  3. gary barwin said...

    To translate Kilmer into generish:


    there’ll never be
    writing like an organism

    an organism which presses
    against the planet

    which has sensations
    and then moves

    an organism that has
    other organisms in its hair

    and upon which it rains
    or snows

    I and others like me write
    only organisms make organisms  

  4. Chris said...

    Surj.: I was trying to suggest that to non-urban types, it might be as odd to "naturally" refer to an oak as a "tree" as it would be for us to refer to a cat as a "mammal". Just underlining that there is no inherently "natural" category.

    EC & GB: Excellent.  


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