“Mountain Tambourine”

“Mountain Tambourine,” Peter van Toorn (Canada), This Same Sky p. 102 (see Resource List)

A crew took part of the big tree awaypoplar tree
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

Environmental Ethics

“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?



Candlish, Stewart; Wrisley, George. “Private Language.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Richter, Duncan. “Ludwig Wittgenstein.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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?
Koko understands spoken English and ASL, and she uses over 1000 signs to communicate with other gorillas and with humans.

*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

Related Resources

  • 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.

Metaphysics Poems

All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section.  If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write up a module for a poem, please contact me at madeleinebella@gmail.com for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!

“Magic Words,” ancient Inuit poem, translated by Edward Field

My full discussion and module is linked to here.

From the first line of the poem, we are challenged to think about the nature of time in an unconventional way. What does it mean for something to happen “in the very earliest time?” Could something have come before that?

Furthermore, in “Magic Words,” the speaker asserts that a very, very long time ago, the world worked differently than it seems to today. Human and non-human animals could change their form at will, which makes us wonder what the essential and accidental properties of humans and non-human animals are. The speaker also explains that words had the power to change the physical world. Of course, many of us might say that words still possess strong powers! A whole discussion might be had on whether it is our words themselves that hold the power to change the world, or whether words serve only as inspiration for actions that humans must take.

“The Birth of a Stone,” Kwang-kyu Kim (South Korea), translated by Brother Anthony – printed in This Same Sky, p. 111

This poem raises the age old questions about what may or may not exist beyond our own awareness. “I wonder if there are stones/that no one has visited?” the speaker wonders. This brings to mind the classic problem of the tree falling alone in the forest. Over the first two stanzas, the speaker muses about what this ancient stone could have endured over millions or billions of years, outside the realm of human experience. At the end, the speaker concludes with a bold claim, that the stone in fact came into existence as soon as it was observed – “was only born/the moment I first saw it.”

This poem may also raise the epistemic questions around the “tree falls in a forest” conundrum: If see/hear a tree fall but no one else does, how do I know it really happened? Should anyone else believe me that it really happened? Why or why not?

“What is it that upsets the volcanoes?,” by Pablo Neruda (Chile), translated by William O’Daly, This Same Sky, p. 129

This short poem, comprised of four couplets with one line standing on its own in the middle, asks five unconventional questions about the nature of the natural world. Some of its questions also may dip into psychology. It begins, “What is it that upsets the volcanoes/that spit fire, cold, and rage?” Can a natural phenomenon that lacks a brain and nervous system be “upset?” What does it mean to be “upset?” Is it always an emotion? The volcano is described as spitting “cold,” but we know that lava is scalding. Can something be “hot” and “cold” at the same time in different ways? What would that mean?

“The Ship’s Whistle,” Tarapada Ray (India), translated by Shyamasree Devi and P. Lal, This Same Sky, p. 155

Here, there is more potential for discussion on the nature of Time. The poem sketches a scene of people getting ready to leave on a long journey. “Your old paper flowers still in that vase/Forever fresh—forever, what does that mean?” What does forever mean? Can we experience it? Is a paper flower always fresh? Can something be forever fresh that never was alive? Though in fact, the paper itself used to be a living tree, which was killed and preserved into an inanimate object. However, of course, all paper will decay and disintegrate someday, and become again part of the earth. Does this have any implication for the idea of “forever?”

Halfway Down,” A. A. Milne, When We Were Very Young, p. 83

This is a lovely little sketch of the special spot right in the middle of things, halfway down (or halfway up, depending on how you look at it) the middle of a staircase. For the child speaker of this poem, it is a particularly special place, unlike any other, where “all sorts of funny thoughts/Run round my head.” After trying to put a label on it and giving only a list of places it is not, the child concludes, “It isn’t really/Anywhere!/It’s somewhere else instead!”

  • Is it possible to not be anywhere at all?
  • If you aren’t anywhere, do you still exist? How do you know?
  • Where is the “halfway” point on a long staircase? If there are twenty steps, is it on the tenth? (really less than exactly half) Or the eleventh? (really more than half) Does it count if you’re on the ninth? How do you decide?

“Day-Dream,” Samarendra Sengupta (India), translated by Lila Ray, This Same Sky, p. 52

“Day-Dream” takes us into a vivid scene of a boy flying a kite alone. With no other people around, the kite takes on a life of its own. When the kite meets another kite in the air, the reader may wonder who, if anyone, is on the other end of the second kite. The line “Space is calligraphic in the clouds” prompts us to think about communication. “The boy/understands although no one else may read it.” What does it mean to communicate something to another person? Is he awake or dreaming?

We can also bring the discussion to epistemic questions.

  • What does the boy understand?
  • How does he know?
  • If you learn something in a dream, is it still true when you wake up?
  • How does the boy know whether he is awake or dreaming?

Finally, this poem can also be used to discuss multiculturalism. Children’s kite-flying is an important piece of Indian culture. A philosophy discussion around “Day-Dream” could easily be incorporated into a primary school unit on sharing different cultural activities and traditions.

Ravikovitch, Dahlia. “Magic.” Israel. translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch, This Same Sky, p. 57

“Magic” begins “Today I’m a hill/tomorrow a sea.” Like “Magic Words,” “Magic” brings up more questions on fluid transformation in the natural world. As the poem cycles through a first person description of changing form, the poem can also prompt discussion of identity formation. Who do you think the speaker is?

Holman, Felice. “Possibilities.” At the Top of My Voice, p. 37

Another great poem to get kids thinking and wondering about what is and is not possible. This is a fun read-aloud with repetition and rhyming that feels fantastic to swirl around in your mouth, and a whimsical Gorey illustration that shows ideas and words as clouds emitting from a child’s consciousness.

Holman, Felice. “Voices.” At the Top of My Voice, p. 53

“The Ships of Theseus,” Steve Gehrke

The Ship of Theseus is an ancient philosophical paradox about a beloved ship made entirely of wooden boards. As the ship begins to fall into disrepair, Theseus has each board replaced as soon as it breaks, until every board of the ship has been replaced. The paradox comes when we ask the question, is it still the same ship? A paradox occurs when two or more answers to a question seem equally plausible. There is a strong case for saying it is not the same ship: Every board is completely different! If the ship had been assembled by taking all of the new boards and putting them together at once, and the original ship simply destroyed, we would have no problem agreeing it there were two ships. However, there is also a strong case for the ship being the same: If it is a different ship now, when did it stop being the original ship? When the very last board had been replaced? When more than half the boards had been replaced? The moment the first board was replaced? If this is the case, then what does this tell us about similarly seemingly inconsequential changes in our possessions, or changes in ourselves? Like “Halfway Down” and its accompanying activity, this is another poem that can stimulate discussion of essential and accidental properties: How much can change about a thing or being before it/she/he becomes something/someone entirely new?

“If A Tree Falls,” Laura Purdie Salas, Bookspeak! Poems About Books

Most of us have heard of the philosophical quandary, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it still make a sound?” In this short and sweet poem that is part of a brilliant collection of poems bringing fiction to life, Salas takes the same idea to investigate the philosophy of fiction: If a book is never read, “does it still embrace a story?” Are stories real? What makes a story real?

Silverstein, Shel. “Colors.” Where the Sidewalk Ends, p. 24 (see Resource List)

Using the -ish sound to great effect, “Colors” describes the rainbow that makes up the outside of one person, concluding with the intriguing line, “And all the colors I am inside/Have not been invented yet.” What does it mean to invent a color? If no one had ever seen the color red, would it not exist at all? See if you can relate this to “If A Tree Falls” by Laura Purdie Salas. How do we know if something exists or not? (You can see how this line of inquiry can also lead into epistemic questions.) Also filed under Social & Political Philosophy Poems.