Owen Sheers’ Trees depicts his father planting a tree for each of his children as they are born. The poem deals with issues of family and nature, combining the two in an extended metaphor of trees growing.
Owen Sheers divides Trees into six couplets, followed by a singular line. This move from pairs into the individual is reflective of the possible death of Sheers’ father. Supporting the children growing up, Sheers acknowledges that one day he will pass away, leaving them as individuals.
Yet, there are elements of optimism in the poem, represented through the syntactic manipulation which ends the poem on an image of light, ‘a sun’. You can read the full poem here.
Title – ‘Trees’
There are many connotations of ‘Trees’, and lots of these reflect upon the concepts which Sheers draws upon within the poem. This poem is one that relates to the family, with the concept of a family tree being suggested.
Moreover, the slow development of a tree is like that of a human. For each child, Sheers’ father plants a tree, the slow growth is mirrored in the child’s own development.
Finally, Sheers’ Welsh identity is one that is inherently linked to nature. By selecting an image directly from the semantics of nature, Sheers references his own identity. Interlinking the concept of personal growth, identity, and nature within one metaphor.
You tell me you’ve planted an oak
in the middle of the top field.
The focus on pronouns hints at the relationship between Sheers and his father. The directness of ‘You tell me’ is blunt and lacks subtly, his father’s speech reflecting his character.
The idea of an ‘oak’ tree is one that bears connotations of strength and durability. Indeed, the average life span for an oak tree is several thousand years. This could be an attempt on Sheers’ father’s part to extend his family legacy far beyond what he will be around for. The strong sense of nature and the importance of family comes through with Sheers’ father here. He is innately a character who values both of these concepts, hence his actions within the poem.
The idea of planting the tree in the ‘middle’ is one that suggests balance. Yet, if the reader understands each tree as a representation of one of Sheers’ fathers’ children, there is also a level of isolation which this ‘middle’ entails. Sheers has previously focused on his inability to connect with his father within the preceding poem, Farther. This idea of isolation is represented by the position of the tree. Instead of an orchard like the formation of closely planted trees, Sheers’ father plants them in far off fields. There is no familial connection between the trees, much like the distance between Sheers and his father.
Couplets Two and Three
When I ask how long before(
and I realise I should have known.
The characterization of the father is explored further within these two couplets. The sense that he is an incredibly blunt man is furthered by his lack of response. Instead of using his words, he just ‘nod[s]’, preferring non-verbal communication. The clear distinction between Sheers and his father is palpable here. Sheers, a person who makes a living using his words cannot connect to his father, a man who prefers to avoid them completely.
Yet, Sheers is already familiar with his fathers’ standoffish coldness. He states that he ‘should have known’, clarifying that this is what he expected. Sheers expresses little emotion in the cold way his father responds to him, showing it is a typical reaction. Much of the characterization of Sheers’ father stems from this poem, giving the reader an insight into their relationship.
After all, you planted trees for our arrivals,
one for each of us at the north, south and west of the house,
Within this couplet, Sheers details the process which his father initiates upon the birth of one of his children. For Sheers and his two siblings, his father plants a tree when they are born. The three directions, three planted trees each representing one of the siblings. Although there is an idea of unity with this act, there is also a great deal of distance between the siblings’ trees. This could be understood as a further insight into Sheers’ family dynamic, the isolating distance between each sapling representative of the distance relationships between the siblings.
The idea of combining the natural idea of planting trees and the directions on a map link back to Inheritance. In that poem, Sheers tells us that his father has a love for maps. The embodiment of this love through the linking of nature and points on a map is clearly something very personal to Sheers’ father. Yet, even something that touches the man still elicits a little reaction. It seems that Sheers’ father is locked away in tropes of the inability to express emotions as a man.
The ‘house’ acts as the central point of the poem. Indeed, this is a poem which deals with the intricacies of family, and therefore the image of a ‘house’ is apt in this description. ‘House’ can be further understood as a synecdoche of family. The family tie between the siblings the only thing holding them together.
The calling back to the present with the temporal ‘now’ refocuses the poem. Sheers looks at the current situation, the possible significance of the new ‘sapling’. The hyphen after ‘planted this—‘ acts as a break in which Sheers begins to ponder the meaning of his father’s actions. Similarly, the hyphen could be a representation of the birth of a new sibling, the break giving way to a new ‘finger-thick sapling’.
The fragility of the young is explored by the impact of the ‘breeze’. Even the weakest possibly lexical choice for wind could damage or disrupt the sapling. If the trees are taken as metaphors for people within Sheers’ fathers’ family, this points to the newborn baby being fragile.
The ‘promise’ of youth is also elevated within this poem. Alike fragility, the image of the infinite possibilities a newborn has is explored by Sheers. He uses the image of a ‘bow/ loaded’, with the enjambed line connecting the image, Yet, the gap between the stanzas also suggests a level of uncertainty. Indeed, no one knows what is in the child’s future, hence the tone which implies unpredictability.
The ‘reddening sky’ gives a glimmer of hope. The beautiful image, one that seems also magical against the otherwise colorless poem steers the poem in an optimistic direction. The lone sapling standing ’silhouetted’ against the sky again chimes with a note of solitary. Much alike Sheers and his siblings, it seems that this child will have much of the same isolation from their family
that could be the setting or the rising of a sun.
Structurally, the movement from couplets to a single line indicates the removal or something is missing. Perhaps Sheers is suggesting that once his father dies, each of the trees will be left alone. The need to care for themselves now their father has passed being a sad possibility for Sheers. The planting of this tree could be a symbol of Sheers’ father’s death, with him planting one for himself like that which he did for his children.
The sense of ambiguity in Trees stems largely from this final line. The conditional ‘could be’ instantly compounds this sense of curiosity. Sheers does not know what will happen in the future and the simultaneous possibilities of the ‘setting or the rising’ reflects this.
The idea of ‘setting’ indicates death. This draws upon the structural idea which is implied, focusing more on Sheers’ father’s death and how that will impact his family.
However, the final focus, presented through the syntax of the line, is the ‘rising of a sun’. The focus on life here, the beginning of a new day ends the poem looking at the new sapling, the suggestion of new life being paramount. The final word, ‘sun’, is a homophone of ‘son’, Sheers implying newborn baby being another son. Moreover, the image of light which the poem ends on, ‘sun’ diverts the poem into a final image of optimism. Although many things could happen in the future, Sheers decides to focus on the optimistic side of the unknown, ending his poem with an image of a beautiful sunrise.