“My sister serves a different role now,” says a standing Poplar to Clare, the protagonist of Up A Tree. The Poplar is speaking about a fellow tree that has fallen. “She is a home to the beetles and ants; she is a fertilizer that will enrich the earth and give life to new things. Every change in circumstance asks us to become something else—to serve in a different way.” (p. 37)
Clare’s encounter with this wise tree being occurs early in the novel when she is just beginning to grapple with the way in which her life has been dramatically altered by her husband’s death and deception. When she receives this wisdom from the Poplar, she begins to look at her circumstance as a change in role and what that requires.
Trees love to be of service, and their unquestionable generosity—even in times of duress—provide a good role model for us. Trees have given us homes to live in, fuel to keep us warm, air to breathe, shade from heat, tools and instruments, food and medicine. The grace with which they yield to adversity and endure, despite storms and disease and the whims of humanity is inspiring. Their beauty as they transform and transcend with each changing season has much to teach us about surrender.
This Poplar is speaking about the continuity of life beyond death, and to the ancients, White Poplar, or Aspen, was an authority on this subject. For one thing the trees grow in community and their roots connect underground. Their root systems can live on for thousands of years and far outlive the trees themselves. When the wind blows, these trees tend to quiver or shake simultaneously, and were called the “whispering” or “talking trees” by the Celts. Because of their close relationship with the wind, they were believed to be messengers of the Eternal Spirit, and the ancients listened carefully whenever the leaves flapped and spoke in unison.
Over the ages, the wood of this tree was used for making shields and the Poplar became associated with war, death and fear. A Christian myth even claimed it was the Poplar that provided the wood for the cross Christ was hung on, and that it was with guilt—not spiritual knowledge—that the trees shook. It was also commonly held that ghosts inhabited these forests, and people came to fear the Poplar tree.
With the demonization of animistic practices and beliefs and the domination of indigenous cultures by religious and colonial forces, the most revered of the nature beings often became the most denigrated. Though history has “changed its circumstances” and somewhat burdened the Poplar with darker meanings and associations, it is content to serve in any story, and to become, as Wendell Berry phrases it in his poem The Sycamore, “the intention and radiance of its dark fate.”
Poplar can teach us a great deal about how to harness the power in our own dark fate and endure with grace and beauty.