It’s fall, the season when we watch leaves turn color and pile by the curb for us to rustle through — or remember rustling. We tend to be especially attentive to trees during seasons of transition: in spring, they cheer us as they leaf out after the emptiness of winter; in fall, they explode with color as they withdraw the cool shade we’ve been enjoying all summer. This is the season to plant trees, so they have a chance to settle into a new spot before all the hard work of leafing and growing, before the challenges (heat, drought) of summer.

When I became Poet Laureate of Athens, I had the idea that I would be involved in the planting of trees — “poetrees” — where we could have ceremonies of writing and planting together. Almost as soon as my term began, COVID hit, changing all our lives. Gatherings were no longer possible, and I had to figure out ways to connect virtually with our community. I have spent a lot of time watching and enjoying the trees in my neighborhood and around Athens, as I hope you have, too.

And here we are in fall again, the season for planting trees. In the past few years, many studies have shown how beneficial trees are for us. You have no doubt read about some of these. Lifelong tree-lovers have always known this, but now we have official documentation of the benefits trees confer on those who live among them. These range from lowering levels of violent crime (domestic and otherwise) to lowering death rates during periods of hot weather.

We can each do our part! If you see a spot near where you live that could use a tree, contact the city: Athens has a Shade Tree Commission and access to an urban forester, who can advise on good (indigenous) trees to plant. If this spot is on city property, Athens will often provide the tree and send strong people to plant it. The members of the Tree Commission can’t be everywhere. We citizens can help by letting the city know where trees are needed.

If you have your own property, with room for more trees, go for it! The whole world, from the birds who will nest there to the people who breathe the fresher air they provide, will be grateful.

Here is a tree poem inspired by the poet W. S. Merwin, who instigated the planting of hundreds of trees on the island of Maui, where he lived for many years until his death.

Reading Merwin in the Woods

Merwin loved the trees.

He planted hundreds

of them — thousands.

He wanted to plant a tree

on the last day of the world.

He knew.

He knew how to listen

to trees, he knew

what they wanted.

He told us.

A tree never says

that you’re not important —

or, and that you are.

A tree cools you,

trees allow you

to breathe.

Forests are lungs,

leaves their alveoli.

Trees look out

for each other, do better

when touching.

Like us.

We can learn from them.

But we have to listen.

Wendy McVicker is Poet Laureate for the City of Athens.

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