Tree-mendous Books, Movies and Music

Arbor Day is April 27, so we’re going out on a limb to highlight a few of our favorite trees in literature, film and even music. There’s no shortage of choices, given that humans have coexisted with and been fascinated by trees—sometimes even worshiping them—for all of history.

The Radley oak tree in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Trees loom large in Harper Lee’s beloved 1960 novel, so it’s no surprise that most editions of the book feature a tree on the cover. Trees, after all, are where mockingbirds hang out. And, as Atticus Finch tells us, “it’s a sin” to kill a mockingbird because all they do is make music for us to enjoy. Furthermore, a tree plays an important role in the plot, as the mysterious recluse Boo Radley uses the knothole of a neighborhood oak tree as a place to leave small gifts for the Finch children, Scout and Jem.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil in The Bible.
In Genesis 2, God forbids Adam and Eve from eating fruit of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” A serpent convinces them to do it anyway, and let’s just say it doesn’t go well. Most people think of this tree as an apple tree, but was it? The Hebrew Bible used a generic word for fruit, but when the Bible was translated into Latin, the translator cleverly chose the Latin word “malus,” which means “apple,” but also “evil.” Painters began depicting the scene with an apple tree; John Milton did the same in Paradise Lost, and the idea stuck.

The Tree of Heaven in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
This 1943 novel tells the coming of age story of Francie Nolan, a second-generation Irish-American whose family struggles to overcome poverty in early 20th century Williamsburg in Brooklyn. A “Tree of Heaven” (Ailanthus altissima) grows outside Francie’s tenement window and symbolizes her own tenacious ability to overcome difficult conditions. “It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement.”

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
This classic children’s picture book, published in 1964, depicts the friendship between a boy and a female apple tree. Over the course of the story, the boy grows to manhood and then old age, and the nature of the friendship evolves with each new stage of life. The Giving Tree, always a huge seller, remains divisive; some critics see unconditional love while others see an unhealthy codependency. Silverstein, who contributed to Playboy and never intended to write for kids, simply said: “It’s about a boy and a tree. It has a pretty sad ending.”

Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy.
This tree-like super-creature from another planet first appeared in Marvel Comics’ pages in 1960 and showed up a few other times before starring in Guardians of the Galaxy—the comic books and the films—in more recent years. Like a regular Earth tree, he has the power of regeneration and can re-grow limbs. Unlike a regular Earth tree, he can talk, sort of; the only thing he says is “I am Groot,” which must make it pretty easy on Vin Diesel, who voices the character in the Guardians movies.

Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick.
The archetypal idea of a sacred “tree of life” is common in many religious and philosophical traditions and has connotations having to do with fertility, knowledge and connectedness. These themes abound and confound in Terrence Malick’s esoteric but brilliant film from 2011, Tree of Life. The movie is sort of about a family in midcentury small-town Texas, but Malick folds in visually stunning sequences depicting the creation of the universe and more. And yes, there are trees. It’s…hard to explain. Just see it.

The Joshua Tree by U2.
If you’re looking for an Arbor Day soundtrack, you could turn to the band named Trees, or Neon Trees or Screaming Trees. But I’m a Gen X-er, so I’ll suggest U2’s album The Joshua Tree, from 1987. The album grew out of the band’s fascination with America, particularly the mythical idea of America versus the often harsh reality, symbolized in the band’s mind by barren desert landscapes. The title didn’t emerge until longtime U2 photographer Anton Corbijn suggested shooting the cover photo among the Joshua trees (a tree-like species of Yucca) of the American southwest. Bono got on board after learning that the name of the tree came from Mormon settlers who found its shape reminiscent of the Old Testament prophet Joshua raising his hands in prayer.