To a Child in a Tree, by Jorge Teillier

You’re the sole inhabitant of an island
known only to you, encircled
by a surf of wind
and a silence barely touched
by a barn owl’s wingbeats.

You can see a broken plough
and a threshing machine whose skeleton houses
one last gleam of sun.
You see summer shrunk into a scarecrow
whose nightmares disturb the wheat.
You see the irrigation ditch in whose depths your missing friend
grabs hold of the paper boat you launched.
You see the town and fields spread out
like pages in a spelling book
where one day you’ll realize you’ve read
the true history of happiness.

The storekeeper goes out to close the shutters.
The farmer’s daughters herd the chickens in.
In the sky, the eyes of strange fish
begin a menacing vigil.
Better return to earth now.
Your dog comes bounding up to meet you.
Your island sinks in the sea of night.

*

A un niño en un árbol
de Jorge Teillier

Eres el único habitante
de una isla que sólo tú conoces,
rodeada del oleaje del viento
y del silencio rozado apenas
por las alas de una lechuza.

Ves un arado roto
y una trilladora cuyo esqueleto
permite un último relumbre del sol.
Ves al verano convertido en un espantapájaros
cuyas pesadillas angustian los sembrados.
Ves la acequia en cuyo fondo tu amigo desaparecido
toma el barco de papel que echaste a navegar.
Ves al pueblo y los campos extendidos
como las páginas del silabario
donde un día sabrás que leíste
la historia de la felicidad.

El almacenero sale a cerrar los postigos.
Las hijas del granjero encierran las gallinas.
Ojos de extraños peces
miran amenazantes desde el cielo.
Hay que volver a tierra.
Tu perro viene a saltos a encontrarte.
Tu isla se hunde en el mar de la noche.

*

I came across this poem just this morning, and decided to try translating it for the 50th edition of the Festival of the Trees (submissions due by midnight!). The host this time is Growing with Science Blog, and the theme: Trees through a child’s eyes.

Climbing trees was a regular activity for my brothers and me when we were kids. Mom warned us to be careful and look out for each other, but other than that, she and Dad encouraged us to explore, for which I am eternally grateful. We stayed away from fruit trees and other species we knew to have brittle banches, but we certainly didn’t shy away from tackling the tallest trees we could get up into. Usually, these were woods’-edge trees with a convenient ladder of limbs on the field side.

Needless to see, this was free-hand climbing, usually with bare feet for added traction. We tried building tree forts a couple of times, but none of us really had the carpentry skills to make it happen, and besides, if you climb high enough, the leafy branches close in and it’s just as easy to pretend you’re surrounded by walls. Tellier’s poem resonated with me, even though we don’t live in sight of town, because it really captures that shipwrecked experience of being alone in the top of a tree, and seeing how things below seem to grow distant in time as well as in space.

In some way that I can’t quite put into words, climbing trees strikes me as an essential experience — one that teaches you things you can’t learn any other way. Our physiognomy still reflects the arboreal habitat of our not-so-distant ancestors; watching the tree elves in Lord of the Rings or the Na’vi in Avatar, we’re struck by a powerful nostalgia. Trees are almost like godparents, nurturing, teaching us both how to aspire and how to respect our limits. It saddens me to think how many kids these days never get to learn such things.

29 Comments


  1. Hear, hear, Dave. I spent much of my childhood up in trees and feel bad for the kids who can’t have that experience of freedom in nature, and lofty separation from the world of big earth-bound adults. I agree that reasonable risky play is essential; it’s one of the ways we learn judgment and that getting a bit banged up isn’t the worst thing in the world.

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    1. Maybe kids these days get a comparable sense of adventure through video games and online explorations. Doesn’t seem quite the same, though, does it?

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  2. What a wonderful selection Dave – I really enjoyed your translation.

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    1. Thanks, Jade. It might not be my most stellar transaltion but with a poem this good, it’s hard to go wrong.

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    1. Thanks, Dick! I was pleased by the serendipity that led me to the poem this morning.

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  3. I still look at trees and calculate the route I would take to the top.

    I remember looking up at the big maple behind my house, hearing the voices of my grandson and his best buddy, far out of sight in the top branches, and biting my tongue; who am I to say, “Be careful!” when I would be up there with him if I still could. Better, when he saw me watching, to send him a smile and a Thumbs Up!

    When he did break his arm, it was from falling off the piano in his living room.

    “… una isla que sólo tú conoces,” Islands too few, too far between; treasure islands.

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    1. When he did break his arm, it was from falling off the piano in his living room.

      Good grief! Yeah, I think a natural fear of heights is a good thing — it makes us more cautious. It wouldn’t occur to too many people that a piano stool is a hazardous location.

      Treasure islands, indeed. Though those who use ropes and modern climbing equipment are of course not limited in their selection of trees the way we were as kids.

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      1. It wasn’t the piano stool; it was the piano. An upright. Off the top. He did like to climb, and pianos don’t have handy branches to hold onto.

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  4. I’ve always seen trees as sort-of godparents, or maybe surrogate parents that looked after us, or at least over us, throughout our childhoods. I still climb the things when I want to get away. People never think to look up (especially for me!). But Bethany is way up ahead of me: she spent most of her junior year doing her homework up a favorite tree.

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    1. Hey, glad to hear you and your daughter are both so arboreal!

      I think I posted once at my surprise, in watching a red-talied hawk on Penn State campus, at how few people seemed to see it perched in plain view on a limb right above the sidewalk.

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    1. I know of it, but I haven’t read it, maybe because I didn’t want to get even more depressed about this than I am already. On the other hand, I don’t have kids myslef, so I have to be careful about telling other people how they should be raising theirs.

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  5. The kids and I built a substantial tree house in a large maple when me moved to the country. Camp outs in the treefort, etc. The kids and grown and we’ve moved away since. That’s where the poem took me.

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    1. Was that a red maple or a sugar maple? Both have nice, spreading forms when grown in the open, but the latter would be a better candidate for a tree fort since they are much more long-lived. Two of the three red maples where we spend the most time as kids 30 years ago are not looking too healthy these days. Half the limbs I used to sit on are dead or dying.

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      1. Sugar maple. Many such massive senior maples on this wide open property. Made quite an impression on me.

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        1. Had to cleanup tons of maple branches after each major wind, a frequent wind. Another pleasure.

          (Thanks for the translation. It’s like the wind, after which I’m picking up the memories. Absolute pleasure.)

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        2. Lucky you! Given your interest in the back-to-the-land movement, I suppose you must’ve tried tapping them too, eh?

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  6. Wow- second post I’ve read this morning about spending time in trees. And I just read The Giving Tree to my kids last week. Strange.

    We have a huge bigleaf maple in the woods in our backyard. It is practically begging to have a little fort built in it. Once my kids are a bit older…

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    1. But if you’re like my parents, you’ll let the kids construct the fort on the theory that it builds character. :) Good thing building inspectors turn a blind eye to such things.

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  7. Dave,

    Trees are almost like “Godparents” — very true! Even more, perhaps for some trees stand as being more parental than parents themselves..

    (…Maybe this why Tolkien named them “Ents” in his L.O.R. trilogy? If you will, the dangling suffix of “-ent” serves as a reminder of their somewhat inscrutable ancient-ness; or the surname “ent” ultimately stands as a header under which all of us creatures fall, including humans.)

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    1. Hi Mick – It’s my understanding that Tolkein was referencing the Indo-European root for “being,” but I may have that wrong. Clearly, though, he was a man who loved forests — and hated people who cut them down. I do quibble with his depiction of ancient forests as consisting entirely of ancient trees, but hey, it’s fantasy. Trees that swallow up unwary people actually struck me as more believable!

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  8. this is a beautiful translation of a beautiful poem. We had a tree house in our sycamore tree and spent hours in its crown. I will always associate tree-climbing with my childhood.
    Do you know the short stories called “Los ninos tontos” by Ana Maria Matute? One of the stories in the collection is about a child and a tree but the book is packed in a box to which I don’t have access at the moment. It would fit well into this theme.

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    1. I’d never heard of that book, but it sounds really good — thanks for the recommendation! And thanks for your kind words about my translation.

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  9. Oh yeah — some of my strongest memories of grade school were of hiding out high in a tall pine — nowadays, they’d be cutting off all the lower branches, specifically to “keep kids from getting up there”.

    Trees give kids an experience of a living being that’s very different from them — far older, stable to the point of being a fixture in the world, with its own life and living patterns, and its own lessons. “God-parents”, indeed….

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    1. Our grade school playground did have one big tree, but sadly it didn’t have any low-hanging branches. Now the school’s been torn down, but the tree’s still there… and I hear that many schools are doing away with recess altogether. Sad.

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