“Mountain Tambourine,” Peter van Toorn (Canada), This Same Sky p. 102 (see Resource List)
A crew took part of the big tree away
on my street. A poplar, it was throwing
its ashes, its dirty pillow stuffing,
around too much. So they said. Anyway,
people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something,
a power or phone line. What’s still standing
they’ll come for tomorrow and chop away.
It doesn’t make much poplar talk now. The big
clatter’s gone out of it. On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.
It leans to one side at a warm angle,
like Annie, whose door it covered last fall.
Background on Philosophical Issues
“Mountain Tambourine” makes us wonder what our roles are as people in relation to the earth and its inhabitants. The people in the poem cut a tree down, presumably because it has been inconveniencing humans. Is it okay to destroy non-human nature in order to make ourselves more comfortable? Our instincts might be to say no, but we must realize that our day-to-day lives depend on doing just this every day. Every time I write on a sheet of paper or print out an essay for school, I depend on the systematic destruction of forests. Every time I get in a car or even ride a bus or train, I support the creation of more exhaust fumes that pollute the air and make it difficult for all species of animal and plant life to live. Every time I open a plastic package, I know the material will ultimately end up leaching chemicals into the earth and/or being picked up and choked on by a bird or fish who mistakes it for food. My waste and its consequences will be around long after I am gone. Does this mean we should reject all forms of industrial living? Some people say yes, and choose to live entirely “off the grid” and/or as fruitarians – individuals who do not consume anything that caused another living entity, animal or plant, to die. Others believe that we can find a morally-acceptable balance between considering the interests of present-day humans, the interests of other species of animal and plant life, and the interests of future generations. Either way, it is difficult to imagine living in today’s society without in some way relying on paper made from trees that have been killed. How do we reconcile our wishes to treat the earth with “respect” and “kindness” and our urge to maintain the habits and conveniences we have grown up accustomed to?
Philosophy of Language
The tree almost becomes a character in this poem. The speaker refers to the tree’s “poplar talk,” and the tree has a “tired branch.” This personification compels us to consider what it really means to communicate. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) revolutionized how we think about language and communication. For Wittgenstein, effective communication depends on a “language game,” in which all the participants in a conversation agree on the same “rules.” Under this understanding, words mean something only within the context of a culture. The meanings of words, of course, depend on how individuals interpret them.
What is the relationship between language and communication? Wittgenstein hypothesized a “private language” (though he didn’t refer to it with this name). Wittgenstein believed that a private language – a language that only one person understands – would be meaningless. The reasoning behind this is that each word has meaning only in relation to other words. If someone makes up a word but has nothing to relate it to, then even the originator would not be able to explain her own language. This seems to imply that any language must be communicated between multiple people. If this is true, it could imply that the formation of language and even concepts depends on set, agreed-upon rules of behaviour.
However, others have put forth a wider definition of language, which can include a language spoken only to the self. If even trees can have language, would this mean they have thoughts and consciousnesses? Or would it mean that language doesn’t require consciousness? On the other end of the spectrum, is it possible for someone to have thoughts without having access to language, or do we need language in order to formulate thoughts?
Sample Questions for Discussion
“…people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something…”
- What are some reasons that people cut down trees? Are these good reasons or bad reasons? Why?
- What should we do if one living entity’s existence is hurting another living entity?
- Should the people cut the poplar tree down? Why or why not?
- Does it matter/would your answer change if the tree were endangering buildings, plants, or animals? Why or why not?
- What if it were only inconveniencing humans but not in danger of actually hurting anyone?
- If the tree were endangering animals, would it matter/would your answer change if it were endangering human or nonhuman animals? Why or why not?
“…On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.”
- Do trees have a purpose? If so, what is it and why do you think so?
- If so, do all trees have more or less the same purpose?
- Do people have a purpose?
- If so, do all people have the same purpose?
- If there were no people on earth, would the purpose of the tree be the same?
- Who gets to decide what something or someone’s purpose is?
- What should happen when someone or something cannot fulfil its purpose any longer?
- Is a purpose the same thing as a goal? Why or why not/if not, what is the difference?
“It doesn’t make much poplar talk now.”
- What does it mean to “talk” or to “make talk?”
- Do you think the “poplar talk” means the tree was making sounds, the tree was communicating, or something else?
- Can the sound(s) trees make be classified?
- Do trees talk/do trees communicate? How so/can you think of some examples?
- Can we talk to trees? Why or why not?
- Is “talking” always the same as “speaking?” Why or why not?
- Does “talking” always involve sounds?
- When people use their hands to communicate using one of the hundreds of codified signed languages around the world, is that talking? Why or why not?
- When humans or other animals use gestures or facial expressions to communicate, is that talking? Why or why not?
- If I say something that only I understand, is that a language? Why or why not? If I interpret the sounds of nature to mean something but no one else understands them the same way, is that language? Why or why not?
*Note: Many of the questions above were inspired by a discussion with the Spring 2015 Smith College Poetry Concentration Senior Capstone course. I am indebted to Professor Ellen Doré Watson and all my amazing peers for opening up these ideas. Thank you!
Environmental Ethics Activities
- What is “Natural?”
- Council of All Beings – from the Institute for Humane Education – also a good activity to practice understanding different perspectives
- The Giving Tree book module by Professor Tom Wartenberg
- Includes summary of the beloved illustrated poem by Shel Silverstein, guidelines for philosophical discussion with philosophical background, and example discussion questions.