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What I Mean When I Say "Palm Trees Are Not Trees"
And why the distinction between the two is important to me.
Can something have essential “tree-ness”? Sure, but who’s asking? Well, in this case, it’s me.
Let me expand: a lot of ink has been spilled on the relationship between “palm trees”, broadly construed, and whether it falls within the realm of the concentric circles of “tree,” broadly defined.
A lot of this ink has been spilled by me, because I’ve cast the palms as my main antagonists in this ongoing project known as JewsLoveTrees. They’re poor shade-givers in this brave hot world. They’re often described as invasive. Taxonomically, they have more in common with grass than most other trees. They’re used to invoke a sense of the “exotic” in places like Los Angeles, and that’s always weird. Like, bad weird. I just don’t like them.
To address the definition of “tree,” it might first help to understand that large, woody plants are a product of convergent evolution, meaning parallel histories of plant adaptations that all ended up with the same conclusion: it’s cool and advantageous to be large and woody. This is in contrast with divergent evolution, wherein we would have the benefit of a common ancestor in order to say, “trees are simply the long-wandering children of Derek”, if Derek were the common ancestor. To be clear, Derek is a fiction.
But we don’t have that luxury, and everyone, including me, gets their equally valid shot in a game of evolutionary Balderdash when it comes to defining “tree”. Prominent attempts at “tree” include:
Anything woody over then feet
Anything woody over fifteen feet
Any plant a child can play under
Any plant that can fall over and kill that playing child
Any woody plant that provides durable building material
Any woody, dichotelydonous plant with secondary thickening
You can see where any of the above definitions might serve the interests of its bearer. The practically-inclined arborist might partake of the first two, the poet the third, the poet-arborist the fourth, the silviculturist the fifth, and, as famed anthropologist Roy Ellen describes them in his fantastic essay “Palms and the Prototypicality of Trees”, the “botanists more persuaded by formal syllogistic logic and and a sense of consistency”(59) the sixth.
Ellen also quotes folk anthropologist C.H. Brown’s description of the emergence of the word “tree” as a cross-cultural category:
“…when tree categories are consolidating in languages, utilitarian properties of prototypic trees are by far more significant than specifications entailing size, growth, and so on.”(74)
In other words, our evolution of the idea of a “tree” is as convergent as evolution of the tree itself. The entire article is worth reading for an illumination of the idea of palms versus an idea of as tree.
So where do I fall? For the sake of clean argument, I boil it down to a single quality of woody plants: the presence of growth rings created by a cambium layer that begets a physical, concentric history. But this is only a botanical feature that underscores my symbolic understanding of trees as storytellers.
“But,” you retort, “palms have vertical growth fibers, stacking each subsequent year’s growth atop one another, allowing for a towering life story to be told!”
Sorry, I meant that trees are good storytellers. They are concise and to-the-point. I can read out the years like a novel in relation to my own, not squint amidst the wind from sixty feet below to see what’s going on up there.
In my own book, Must Love Trees: An Unconventional Guide, which you should very much buy please then leave a flattering review on Amazon or Goodreads or anywhere else, I lay out my poetic fallacy when it comes to growth rings:
“Aside from its practical applications in climate science and history, tree ring dating and analysis (dendrochronology) is such a cozy, sweet, human thing; if I give a tree a hug so tight that I accidentally brush my hand against an exposed spot of its cambium, that scratch will stay with it until death, perhaps after my own. Therefore, when cranky old-timers get out their abacuses and their arbitrary definitions of a tree, you can clap back with a simple quality.”(204)
We always say, “be careful not to anthropomorphize” when it comes to trees. That’s mostly when it comes at the expense of botanical knowledge, like mistaking the habits of a healing trunk for those of the human epidermis.
But for me, when I think about a tree as a writer, a comedian, and an insignificant human entity so desperate for stories that inject meaning into my life, I have only one trait that defines it.
In short: no damn story, no damn tree.
Ellen, Roy. “Palms and the Prototypicality of Trees.” The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism, edited by Laura Rival, Routledge, 1998, pp. 57-79.