As the European countryside was becoming scarred with trenches and pocked with artillery shells and the other devices of tortuous death that defined World War I, a different kind of devastation was taking place 4000 miles away. In the eastern forests of the US, timber companies were cutting roads deep into the land and clear-cutting vast areas of timber to the extent that entire mountainsides were laid bare- a wasteland of stumps. One day the lumbermen arrived at a section of rich cove forest in western North Carolina where the trees were so numerous, so large, and so majestic that they could not bring themselves to cut them down. This pristine section of forest held mammoth Tulip Poplar trees, many of which developed a circumference of over 20 feet, heights of 130 feet or more, and were well over 300 years old. This part of the forest was spared the ax that day.
Several days after the United States became involved in World War I in April, 1917, a man by name of Joyce Kilmer enlisted in the Army and was deployed to France to defend his country. While the call of duty forced him to become a soldier, his career up to that point had been much more scholarly and steeped in his Catholic faith. As an author, he had published a book in 1914 that contained a poem that would later make him famous:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.
A tree the looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray.
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair.
Upon whose bosom snow has lain
Who intimately lives with the rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
In Europe, Kilmer could have accepted an officer’s commission and avoided active duty. Eschewing the easy road, he remained a sergeant and took on more hazardous duty in military intelligence. He was highly respected by his fellow soldiers, who admired his sense of calm while leading reconnaissance patrols in no-man’s land. In a letter to his wife, he wrote: “Now I am doing the work I love, and work you may be proud of. None of the drudgery of soldiering, but a double share of glory and thrills.” This desire to actively serve in the trenches became his undoing: he was killed by a sniper in the Second Battle of Marne on July 30, 1918. He left behind his wife, Aline and four children. A fifth child died the previous year.
So, while Joyce Kilmer lost his life in the service of his country- as so many brave men and women have, forming the core purpose of our celebration of Memorial Day- that remnant bit of virgin forest in North Carolina lived on. The forest there was everything Kilmer described in his poem: trunks and roots pressed against a rich forest floor, intimately living with and attaining their massive size through 70 or more inches of rain per year, often coated with snow in winter. In 1936, the Forest Service decided that the forest should be protected, as so little of the primordial eastern forest was left. If there was one good thing that came from the stock market crash of 1929, it is that the drastic drop in lumber prices extended the reprieve of logging in this section of forest long enough to insure its protection.
Completing the circle of the story, after the forest was set aside, the Veterans of Foreign Wars asked that a fitting stand of the great Poplars be set aside to serve as living memorial to the poet and soldier, so the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest was dedicated to his memory. A 2.2 mile trail composed of 2 loops winds through a small segment of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness about 15 miles northwest of Robbinsville, North Carolina. The upper loop winds through “Poplar Grove” where the most numerous and massive Tulip Poplars are located. A memorial plaque to Joyce Kilmer stands at the point where the 2 loops of the trail intersect. Regardless of the time of year that one visits, this beautiful woodland heralds any season. In early spring, the forest floor is a carpet of Wildflowers, in late spring and summer, ferns thrive in the deep shade of the canopy. The fall reveals golden yellow leaves of the Poplars that lend color to the season and fall to create a new carpet, while the winter visitor can enjoy the bare bones of the giants, with branches the size of tree trunks and tops blown out by the lightning of summer thunderstorms. Sometimes, as in the poem, the winter provides a cloak of snow.
But most of all, a visit here is a celebration of Memorial Day, no matter when one comes to the forest. Whether a fan of poetry or not, if you like trees or the incredible beauty of the North Carolina Appalachians, you might just find yourself someday honoring Joyce Kilmer in his element. To this arborist, Joyce Kilmer exemplifies most clearly the meaning and significance of Memorial Day. Whether you visit on Memorial Day or any other day of the year, it can be for you a celebration of those who gave their lives for our country. Here, we can memorialize the loss of his life on a battlefield so far away-paying the ultimate price for the freedom that we enjoy. Walking among those beautiful towering trees provides comfort in the knowledge that Joyce Kilmer would have felt at home there too.