The mysteries of nature's majesty

Some wonders that have sent human hearts soaring defy routine explanation

I was browsing the internet when I came across a poem written in 1913 by Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918). Titled Trees, it transported me back to my high school days, bringing back to mind a young version of myself reciting it in front of the class as our teacher in English literature, Miss Benita Maquinto, listened intently as she stood by the classroom window. I have written several articles about trees, but forgotten all about that poem, but as soon as I read the first line all the words came rushing back to me.

the grounds of Sanam Chandr Palace in Nakhon Pathom province.

"I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth's flowing breast.

A tree that looks at God all day

And lifts her leafy arms to pray.

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robbins in her hair.

Upon whose bosom snow has lain

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me

But only God can make a tree."

ancient trees at the Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. No two trees are exactly the same, even those belonging to the same species.

Trees was set to music by American pianist and composer Oscar Rasbach in 1922, and there were several renditions popular from the 1920s to the 1960s. As I was writing this, I was listening to them one by one on YouTube. The Platters are among my favourite singers, and for me modern songs are not as good as those of the 1960s, when I was in high school, but their musical rendition of Kilmer's poem in 1961 paled in comparison with that of American actor and tenor Mario Lanza, who sang it in 1952.

If a musical piece's popularity can be gauged by the number of famous singers who sang it, then Trees was very popular indeed. Many of the performers were opera singers, ranging from tenors (Bob McGrath in 1922, Nelson Eddy in 1937, Richard Tauber in 1938, Mario Lanza in 1952 and David Whitfield in 1961), to baritones (Paul Robeson in 1939, John Charles Thomas in 1942, Robert Merrill in 1952) and contralto (Ernestine Schumann-Heink in 1926), not to mention popular singers of the '60s such as jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, and the Platters.

Between 1927 and 1979 the music was used in 10 film and TV productions. The last to play the music was British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, who gave a poignant rendition of it.

It was probably because of that poem, which my favourite teacher Miss Maquinto made us memorise, that trees have a certain strange fascination for me. It is said that no two people are alike, but it is now known that identical twins do not only share the same features but also the same characteristics. However, have you noticed that no two trees are exactly the same, even those belonging to the same species or which grew from seeds that came from the same pod?

Growing up in the mostly Catholic Philippines, I was taught that God created us all. In 1809 French biologist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck published a theory on how one species could have evolved from another. He suggested that an individual acquires changes during its lifetime and passes these changes on to its offspring.

But it was not until the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 that divine creation was seriously challenged. Darwin proposed a feasible mechanism for evolution and backed it up with fossil evidence and genetic studies. His theory of evolution suggests that present-day species have evolved from simpler ancestral types by the process of natural selection.

I do believe in evolution. I know that flowers evolved as products of pollination if not of hybridisation. I know that when you sow a seed, there is a tendency for the plant to deviate from its mother plant as a result of cross pollination. Plants and lower forms of animals mutate all the time and develop into different species altogether, which is why new species are being discovered all the time by scientists and researchers.

But there are things that cannot be fully explained by Darwinian theory, and it is the ingenuity and creativity of a divine being which strikes me when I see majestic trees.

Certainly, someone must have designed them in many different forms to bring colour and beauty to an otherwise drab world, and to bring happiness to many a heart.

As Kilmer said in his immortal poem, "Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree."


Merry Christmas to you all. Email nthongtham@gmail.com.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Normita Thongtham
Position: Writer