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Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm
Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm
Thomas J. Campanella
Yale University Press, 2003
240 pp., $45.00

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Douglas Jones

Reading Trees

God can be so cruel in his mockery of us. Who would have thought that divine laughter could sound like fungal growth? Or that a history of elms could reveal God's disdain? Yet that appears to be one reading of the history of the American elm that Thomas Campanella traces in his Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm. Campanella himself, of course, is not at all concerned with this sort of theological question, offering an engaging but tame chronicle of the elm. But the more pressing issue is, why have several centuries of Christian reflection barred these sorts of exegesis-of-nature questions from discussion?

Imagine a medieval Christian mind taking in a book like Republic of Shade. That mind would already carry a wide and serious commitment to the Psalmist's declaration, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard" (Ps. 19:1-3). We tend to read this as encouraging a vague, greeting-card appreciation of nature, but the medieval imagination was more risky and specific. Mountains speak. Water sings. Trees talk, and they won't shut up. Medievals weren't frozen by fear of Enlightenment snickering or duped into mathematizing creation. All of creation was a poem.

Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative and Henri du Lubac's series on medieval exegesis go a long way toward showing how the church's embrace of Enlightenment hostility to imagination undermined the more playful medieval tradition. But it really takes something like James Jordan's underground theological classic Through New Eyes to appreciate how a mind steeped in biblical typology might begin reading trees. In typological terms, trees in Scripture act like giant words, expressing not only the general glory of God but also more specific themes. Both trees and saints come out of the ground. Both grow on riverbanks (Ps. 1) and bring food ...

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