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The giving trees of Claremont

by Mellissa Martinez

Each attempt to read Shel Silverstein’s classic The Giving Tree to our five-year-old, Felix, is met with the same response…“no, mom, it’s too sad. I don’t want to read it.” However, as I consider the narrative of the tall, healthy tree offering its fruit, leaves, branches and trunk for the happiness of a growing boy, I can’t help but feel grateful. The tale inspires me to reflect on the many trees that have contributed to my own happiness over the years.

I celebrated childhood birthday parties under the elms at Memorial Park. As an adolescent, I climbed the massive olive tree in our backyard and had to be rescued from the high branches of my neighbor’s pine.  The oranges, grapefruits and avocados picked directly at home marked the seasons and, even now, every summer I sit under my orange blossom tree relishing its intoxicating, heady aroma.

Each spring, the blossoms lure a swarm of visiting bees who settle in for a week of hard work. Ironically, those friends who suffer from Melissophobia, or ‘the dreaded fear of bees,’ are too terrified to visit during this period of intense nectar collecting. My namesake, the Greek Melissa, or ‘honey bee,’ also led to the word for honey in most Romance languages. Consider Spanish miel, Italian miele and Portuguese mel.

Not surprisingly, the names of many Claremont trees can also be traced back to Greek origins. Eucalyptus comes from the combination of eu ‘well’ and kalyptos ‘covered,’ so called because of the fact that the unopened flower bud is tightly protected with a covering.

The olive tree derives its name from the Greek elaion ‘oil,’ and sycamore means mulberry-leaved fig tree. Its etymology can be traced through Old French and Latin back to the Greek sykomoros, a combination of sykon ‘fig’ and moron ‘mulberry.’ Although our modern North American Sycamore no longer produces fruit, the sycamore fig still grows in warmer regions of the Middle East and Africa.

Trees, of course, provide more than shade and beauty. The oil from the eucalyptus, which is used in cold remedies, lozenges and chest rubs, contains anti-bacterial qualities. In fact, the native people of Australia still use eucalyptus oil to treat wounds and relieve fever. For millennia, olive trees have served as a symbol of peace and unity. The expression ‘to extend an olive branch,’ which means to offer peace or reconciliation, comes from the Book of Genesis, which describes a dove carrying an olive branch to Noah as a sign that the flood had subsided. 

The sycamore tree was feared by some Native American tribes, who called it the ghost of the forest. As the story goes, the chief who ruled over all evil spirits cast two of his worst bad guys down to earth where they collided with a sycamore, causing the branches to become gnarled and white.  Ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, believed the holy sycamore connected the worlds between the living and the dead. They claimed that the sun god emerged from the majestic wood and that the eastern gates of heaven were flanked with two turquoise sycamores.

Trees have also led to useful English idioms like bark up the wrong tree, out on a limb, can’t see the forest for the trees and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In German, one can say alte Bäume soll man nicht verpflanzen, ‘old trees should not be transplanted,’ to refer to the idea that older people are more comfortable in their familiar surroundings. In Spanish, those who take advantage of others are said to hacer leña del árbol caído, or ‘make firewood from a fallen tree.’

From pines to palms and oaks to elms, living in Claremont would certainly not be the same without the gifts bestowed on us by our trees. Sun-dappled strolls down College, shady picnics at Memorial Park  and sweet scents, which change from corner to corner, are just some of the perks that come with living in the city of trees.

And, unlike the ungracious boy in Silverstein’s tale, I’d like to believe that we Claremonters truly appreciate all that the trees have given us.  

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