Ailanthus: a poem

By John Marin


Please take a moment and think about the Ailanthus.

No-one plans it.
No-one plants it.
No-one waters,
Or prunes,
Or sprays it,
Or gives it plant food or weed killer or even manure.
It squeezes between tall buildings,
Through sidewalk gratings,
And cracks in concrete,
And in angles of fences where mowers can’t reach it.

It survives
Unassisted, and thrives.
It stands up to road salt,
And car fumes,
And dog piss,
And the hardened indifference of big-city life.
Only let it be:
And it will sink deep roots,
And form stout branches,
And cast a shade as good as that of any planted tree.

The Ailanthus is all unwanted children
And the adults they become.
It’s those who got adopted
And those who never did.
It’s those who learn their origins
And those who never will.

It’s the kids who glut the System
And call it Home:
In orphanages,
In nurseries,
And in foster homes,
Waiting for chance to graft them onto someone’s family tree.

The Ailanthus,
Laughing at rejection,
Sings out:
“I was born a bastard,
What’s your excuse?”,
Then turns its leaves to the sun,
And grows.

Please take a moment and think about the Ailanthus.


[“Ailanthus” (C)1996 by Jonathan Marin]
[Reproduced with permission of author]

The Element of Lavishness

The Element of Lavishness: Letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1938-1978

Maxwell to Warner, March 15, 1940:

I have all but one foot out of the office, but continue to work a little each day on manuscripts, and will for another month and a half, with the mornings free to work out my own salvation. Your last letter couldn’t have pleased me more if it had been printed on Joseph Smith’s golden plates instead of grey stationery. But you must not grow anxious about The New Yorker. I’ve been eating out of Mr. Lobrano’s hand for years, and always with pleasure. I’m sure you have nothing to worry about.

The view you asked about, the view from my window, consists of treetops, ailanthus tree-tops, a courtyard, and a six-story box factory with fire escapes that descend in alternating musical scales, and with windows that I know the way I know my own face. There is also a drain that all the alley cats in the neighborhood pass in and out of, sooner or later. My apartment is cheerful and bright as a birdcage, and seems a good enough place to write in, with no dogs, no friends, no relations, no refugees. Only a straggling pot of ivy to worry over.

I wrote slowly and it may be years before there’s a new book to send you and so I’m shipping under separate cover an old one [They Came Like Swallows]. It was published in England but for some strange reason they put the first line of every chapter in caps, big ones, so that chapters begin: “THE GRASS UNDER THEIR FEET WAS trampled …” I’m sending you the American edition. If you find it hard going don’t chew on it. Life is too short to read books you don’t like.

Ailanthus in the Underworld

Ailanthus shows up in Don DeLillo’s book Underworld. It is a very bleak chapter, describing two nuns distributing alms in a bombed-out area of the South Bronx filled with abandoned cars, cripples, utter desolation. The landscape and the people who live in it are vividly described through the eyes of the senior nun, Sister Edgar. At one point, Sister Edgar glances out the window of the tenement.

Edgar looked out a window and saw someone moving among the poplars and ailanthus trees in the most overgrown part of the rubbled lots. A girl in a too-big jersey and striped pants grubbing in the underbrush, maybe for something to eat or wear.

She learns that the girl is 12 years old, daughter of a crackhead who has gone missing. She is living on her own in the wreckage. Towards the end of the chapter, Gracie the younger nun tries to catch her, unsuccessfully, losing her when she

ran into the thickest part of the lots and then I was distracted, damn scared actually, because bats, I couldn’t believe it, actual bats – like the only flying mammals on earth?” She made ironic wing motions with her finger. “They came swirling out of a crater filled with red-bag waste. Hospital waste, laboratory waste.”

Shortly before giving chase to the girl, the nuns see a tour bus arrive, called South Bronx Surreal, giving ghetto tours to European tourists.

Gracie went half berserk, sticking her head out of the van and calling, “It’s not surreal. It’s real, it’s real. Your bus is surreal. You’re surreal.”
A monk rode by on a rickety bike. The tourists watched him pedal up the street. They listened to Gracie shout at them. They saw a man come along with battery-run pinwheels he was selling, brightly colored vanes pinned to sticks – an elderly black fellow in a yellow skull-cap. They saw the ailanthus jungle and the smash heap of mortified cars and they looked at the six-story slab of painted angels with streamers rippled above their cherub heads.
Gracie shouting, “Brussels is surreal. Milan is surreal. This is real. The Bronx is real.”

DeLillo describes the landscape of hell, and ailanthus grows there. An ailanthus jungle on abandoned wreckage. What I see would look grey and brittle. You could see partway into it before the stems grew too numerous, not a wall of vegetation but more like a fog. On really polluted ground the trees wouldn’t be thick and large. It wouldn’t be a forest in the sense of a distribution of young, medium and old trees. It would be more like a thicket, grey-white branches reaching straight up, a whole cohort of ailanthus all no more than one, two or three inches diameter, growing so close together you can barely pass through, even though there is no understory, and hardly any lateral branches. You could hide in there, but it wouldn’t give you any protection from the elements on its own. The compound leaflets would be too small to slow the rain or the cold wind. If she was living in there, she would have to cobble together some other shelter from the debris in the area. Maybe box-elder would be growing there too; then she could at least prop her lean-to against something more substantial. It is a landscape so poor it does not provide shelter, it does not provide food, it does not even provide wood for the fire. And it would stink, especially in the summer heat.

TS Eliot: Four Quartets

The great poet TS Eliot uses Ailanthus altissima in his poem “Four Quartets”.  Here is the opening stanza of the third Quartet, The Dry Salvages:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

Here is the full poem.  The English student G. Michael Palmer writes about the garden and nature imagery in Four Quartets:

It is through flowers, and especially the rose, that Eliot is most connected in Four Quartets to his own poetry (as it is through fruit and gardens that he is connected with Milton).  Through the growth and withering of flowers Eliot allows us to experience both pain and resurrection, as the poem contains both the endless “withering of withered flowers” (DS 80) and the rising “lotos” “in the pool” “of light” BN (36; 38; 37).  The generic flowers of the poem, and the flowers such as the ailanthus and the sunflower serve, much like the specific fruits in the poem, to introduce a sense of duality, and in a more overt way, a strong sense of decay.  The ailanthus is “rank” (DS 12), and “the dahlias sleep in the empty silence” (EC 22).  The “hollyhocks…aim too high” (EC 55) and die, and there is always “the silent withering of  autumn flowers” (DS 50).  This flowery withering is explicitly Eliotic, and a common image in his poetry for conveying spiritual decay.

This is great stuff; Ailanthus as metaphor for “spiritual decay”!  Palmer’s not a good botanist though; Ailanthus is not a flower but a tree.  And the whole thing stinks, but especially the leaves.

About Ghetto Palm

These entries are dedicated to chronicling the growth of Ailanthus altissima in cultural consciousness. Simply put, I’m collecting any reference to the tree in art, literature, movies, music, etc. and putting it on the web. I also may include ecology of the tree, but it’s not my principal focus.

Why am I doing this? People have in their contact with nature developed sets of ideas related to many different trees. Individual species of trees represent different things to us, and have wound up in our cultural memory. The willow tree can be “Old Man Willow”; we tie yellow ribbons around oak trees; President Andrew Jackson was nicknamed “Old Hickory”, children sing “here we go round the mulberry bush”, and so on.

In the past, the bulk of the world population lived in the countryside, and contact was with the agricultural and unmanaged landscape. My assumption is that as the majority of the world population has moved to the city or suburb, our principal contact with nature will be with whatever is common in cities. That will certainly include Ailanthus altissima.

Some have predicted the emergence of new urban ecosystems that will span the globe, meaning the plant assemblages found in any one northern city will be much the same as in any other. If a Detroiter moves to Germany or Northern China, the urban landscape will be very much the same. Ailanthus altissima is the urban tree, able to survive in the most desolate urban environments, and adaptable to a wide range of climate. It follows that as more and more people spend their lives in proximity to the tree, they will start to attach meaning to it, and that will slowly seep into our culture. I want to catalog that and share it here on this website.

Why the name “ghetto palm”? I am interested in the meaning people attach to the tree Ailanthus altissima. In Detroit, where I grew up, ghetto palm is a name give to Ailanthus. It flourishes all over the city, in neglected lots, abandoned homes, old industrial sites, everywhere. The more dilapidated the district, the more prevalent the tree. I don’t know who coined the term, and as I’ll show in later posts, I don’t think it’s unique to Detroit. It is to my mind a perfect example of people recognizing and reacting to their natural environment.

If you have links, images, or even personal stories about this tree, you are most welcome to contribute. I will post whatever I am given, with credit and a link.

Little Odessa

Little Odessa‘s an older movie (1994) that I just picked up on VCD a little while ago. It’s not a particularly interesting drama, but the setting is. It’s filmed in a part of New York city called Brighton Beach. It’s a decaying industrial sector with a large Russian immigrant population. The climax scene in the movie uses Ailanthus altissima to great effect. The thug (Tim Roth) has taken his victim to an abandoned factory to assassinate him. The victim stands at his grave. As Roth raises his gun, we see the bare branches of Ailanthus altissima rising between them like the devil’s own horns. There’s no doubt the director (James Gray) included the tree on purpose; just look at how tips of the branches line up with the gun and the victim’s head. It’s a depressing movie, like every movie by or about Russians I’ve ever seen, but it’s worth watching for the scenery.

Ghetto Palm

I’ve been busy working on a new website that I had been contemplating building for a while. Ghetto Palm is something of a fan site for an unusual tree, Ailanthus altissima, the Tree-of-heaven. I want to collect any and all popular (I mean, non-scientific) references to the tree that I can find and put them up on the web. It’s a bit of an odd idea I know, but you have to understand I work with trees for a living so I can’t help but get a little attached to some of them. You can read my too-wordy rationale about why I am doing this. If you’ve spent any time in the northern half of the US, you’ve almost certainly seen this tree whether you know it or not. If you’ve an interest in this tree as well, stop by or send anything you have my way. I’ll be happy to put it up on the site and credit you appropriately.