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The Trees That Inspired America’s Literary Greats


From the old maple in Faulkner’s yard to Melville’s chestnut and Muir’s California Laurel, we explore the trees that inspired America’s famous writers.

It all started with Richard Horan on his hands and knees in the backyards of Abe Lincoln and Elvis Presley, William Faulkner and Mark Twain, picking up seeds of trees.

Big old trees that the greats themselves might have gazed up on.

Then it became an obsession.

To collect the seeds of trees of great American writers, great American history. Seeds from the trees of Willa Cather and Eudora Welty. Ken Kesey and Robert Frost. Flannery O’Connor and Jack Kerouac. Oak and magnolia, hackberrry and pecan.

This hour: an obsession, and a forest of literary trees.

- Tom Ashbrook


Richard Horan, author of “Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers.”

Brian Sayers, president of New York State Arborists.

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  • Charlie Mc

    One of the basic human experiences which everyone should have in life, is the planting of a seed and the care and observation of the growing plant in its transit through its life cycle. Ancient scriptures place a keynote Psalm (1) which starts:
    “Happy are those who reject the advice of evil men, Who do not follow the example of sinner
    Or join those who have no use for God.
    Instead they find their joy in obeying the Law of the Lord,
    And they study it day and night.
    They are like trees that grow beside a stream,
    That bear fruit at the right time,
    And whose leaves do not dry up
    They succeed in all they do.”

    Jesus is so often presented as comparing the spiritual life to the tiny seed buried into the ground producing such a surfeit of thousands of seeds.
    A tree is the interface between the earth (grasped so firmly by the root system) and the air (where the branches capillary-like “disappear” into the sky).
    The secret Way of “seeing” this is by cultivating silent seeing what is right before our eyes in the here and now. What we must do is to “change the way we think about reality” (metanoiesete) and instead of thinking only of USING reality, we must begin to say “wow!” about it.

  • Rievler

    I’m sorry, but this topic is ridiculous. An entire hour on one guy’s literary seed obsession. Surely, there is a better topic out there worth the time. The whole premise that there is some direct connection between trees and these writers seems weak.

  • Anonymous

    This is an interesting idea, especially since the ancients saw groves of trees as sacred to the gods. It’s appropriate for a writer to seek to make his own grove descended from the trees of others who were inspired by the Muses.

    Greg Camp
    Springdale, AR

  • Mary in Plainfield, Vermont

    Trees bear witness and mark the passage of time. I found it immensely moving to be able to touch a tree that was planted by George Washington at his home, Mount Vernon. Cheers to Richard Horan and his “obsession”!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=584989777 Brian P. Kasso Gaidry


    Even to those whose sight cannot penetrate the hidden meaning and symbolism of trees must bear witness that trees provide fruit to nurture our bodies and the very air we breathe. The very bodies of trees are used to provide shelter and warmth for humans.

    For writers who look deeper, trees are incredibly meaningful symbols. With their branches extending to the heavens, and their roots reaching deep into the Earth and their trunks connecting the two.

  • Char

    My initial reaction to this topic is that it’s yet another author’s attempt to create a book out of an incidental item that they then make into a significant life-changing element. But as I listened, I realized that I had stories to tell about the trees on the small lot on which I grew up in Kenosha WI. There was a maple tree out front that we climbed; it blazed in color in the Autumn. There was a cherry tree in back – also a favorite climbing tree – which gave us beautiful blossoms and delicious cherries. Strung out from the fence to the cherry tree was a grapevine. We probably had about 13 trees on that lot and when I talk with my brothers and sisters about playing in the yard, our memories often include the trees.
    Must have had some impact on us through our lives, right?

  • Cncaboos

    Hello, We make maple syrup and many of our trees are huge 150 yr old maples. We have several of them named, such as Gladiator, Spartacus, Ebenezer, Tall Tom, The Four Muskateers. I talk to them when I gather their sap. They have also inspired many of my quilts and digital art.
    Your guest lives only 1 1/2 south of us. We are Canton, NY. And he should come check out our trees sometimes.

  • Anonymous

    Aren’t books the enemies of trees?

    • Norma F. Gillespie

      I’d like to believe that trees have enough limbs to give for bookmaking. OK so I’m a dreamer who loves books. With recent technology–books online and Kindles–we should, however, save many trees.

  • Jane Harrison

    I’m loving this show…I just heard the caller from Mansfield, OH, where I too grew up playing in trees. And I have in my living room a drop-leaf table made by my uncle from a walnut tree that had to be cut down (with much sadness) from our property when I was a girl. ~Jane H.

  • John casserly

    has richard heard of the championship tree project which is cloning the biggest/oldest trees and planting them?

  • Beth

    I have a tiny piece of Rowen tree I collected (from the ground!) in Scotland. I created a piece of jewelry around it so I can carry it with me and “touch wood” any time I need to! I consider it very precious.

  • Ocean

    When we grow a fruit tree from a seed, we wait for the fruits and the seeds, When we do science experiments, we wait for the new discovery data.

    Science data like seeds which contain hidden power within it small sparks which can set the imagination on fire.

    Each spark of data or seeds can generate new data & new seeds, which will grow forever (never die).

    If we know our own intentions well, there will always be ideas and seeds enough for our grand grand children to harvest and sow again to make the world a little more beautiful each morning.

    from http://www.studentvision.org & http://www.Nobel-Pauling.org

  • Boston mom

    I admit I thought this show would be incredibly dull (even as a treehugger) but it’s completely fascinating. I love the idea of the writer’s grove.

  • Sarah Forbes

    Talisman? Maybe. Connection to history and family- definitely!

    I grew up in Delaware County in PA. A Penn’s ash (planted by Wm. Penn) was growing next to the playground at Glen Mills elementary school where I attended. When I was 17, the town decided to take the tree down for safety reasons and people could come take what they wanted. My brothers and I rented the biggest cross cut hand saw we could find and harvested 4 or 5 slices. The 7 foot saw was only big enough to cut branches- not the enormous main trunk. I use one small slice as a table, beautifully finished by my father, on an antique table base and have a 5 foot plus slice in the garage I have carted around from PA to Vermont and multiple locations- some day I’ll finish that too! Sarah F.

  • Lee Wheeler

    The lady who collect the wood from Mark Twain’s oak tree might like to know that the odor was most likely from the wood, not an animal. there are a number of oak species (mostly varieties of red oak) that smell like urine. They are commonly called piss oak. A local lumberman could probably identify the species.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DKTQZFAJV2HJUEMMMLCDW6SUIU Gabrielle

    can’t wait to download the podcast tonight!

  • Alix Driscoll

    Great program- am now listening. How do you start a sprout from a seed? I want to start sprouts of
    pecan seeds from the tree by the beloved boyhood home in South Carolina of my son-in-law. The trees will not live in Andover, MA probably but I will give spouts to him when the family can afford a home in DC. How do you handle pecan seeds?

  • Alix Driscoll

    Great show- I have half dozen pecan seeds from the tree by beloved boyhood home of my son-in-law in Charleson,SC and want to sprout them for a special gift when the family purchases their first home in DC area.
    How do I help them to sprout?
    Alix, Andover, MA

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000161922678 Bill Stine

    Interesting program. Here in Jefferson City, MO we have a tulip poplar tree from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello– from the seeds of the original planted by Tom. It is on the state capitol grounds below the Lewis & Clark Trailhead Plaza and “Corps of Discovery” statues dedicated on June 4, 2008.

    • William Stine

      Hi Bill, this is Bill Stine as well.  If you are the son of Louis and Louise, I think we are second cousins.  Email me a note and we will catch up at william.stine@att.net  

  • Anonymous

    I was in Japan once as a guest of KODO, Japan’s most famous taiko drumming group. A tour of Ivy League alumni came to their compound and listened to a short concert. As they were leaving the members of KODO pointed out some tiny keyaki saplings that they had planted, explaining that in 600 years these trees would be big enough to harvest to make taiko drums. It was to ensure the continuation of their art but also as an offering for the trees harvested to make their current drums. The assembled tourists burst out laughing, thinking the whole thing a joke. The Japanese drummers stood stunned because, of course, they were absolutely serious.

    Douglas Brooks
    Vergennes, Vermont

  • Lpaigeg

    And The Lorax said, “I speak for the trees for they have no voice…..” It’s so heartening to know I am in good company with others who speak for the trees.

    I have a tattoo on my left ankle that I got for my 40th b-day. i wanted some sort of Chinese character like peace or serenity, but I didn’t like the way they looked. I tried earth. Nope, didn’t like that either. I settled on the Chinese character for…….tree! Your listeners might be interested to know that the Chinese character for tree is made from the character for man.

    To Suriawase, thank you for that story from Japan. I’ve another small vignette from japan, tho I can’t remember where I heard it. The story goes a Japanese Zen monk was sitting outside doing his meditation next to his favorite tree when the garden workers arrived. They started raking, pruning, and then began to discuss whether any trees should be removed for safety reasons. The monk shouted to them: “If you cut down this tree I will kill myself.”

    LOVED this show! Thank you Tom for producing it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kestrel-Wolgemuth/13005128 Kestrel Wolgemuth

    My father wrote a memoir describing his relationship with nature — a thoughtful, poetic book called “The Old Marlborough Road.” But perhaps I’m biased. Regardless, he tells a story from his childhood in Mount Joy, PA in which a friend dares him to climb a particularly treacherous tree. He does so, but only as a solitary endeavor long after his friend scampers home. To mark his accomplishment, he drives a silver razor blade into the bark. The desire to go back and find that tree has always haunted me. Keep on scouting those trees, Richard. I completely understand your passion.

  • http://www.anniesilverman.biz Silverman Annie

    I caught the tail end of this in the car and it was wonderful. In the morning with my tea I was reading Roger Deakin , alas no longer on this plane but his book, WILDWOOD A Journey through trees, is a marvel.He is “‘ a famed British nature writer and icon of the environmental movement” It is a meditation on wood, through the woods of Britain and the world to find the enduring connection between humans and trees.. I know he would have loved this book and this radio show…
    and now I know that grass is no friend to trees…
    thanks so much.annie silverman

  • Brett

    Trees are walking….A tree, in an effort to acquire nutrients, will send out its roots in search. If the tree lives a long life, it will be physically in a different spot than it was as a sapling; or, as I like to think, trees are walking very slowly.

    P.S.-There is an effort afoot to restore the great American chestnut tree to its rightful place held in its glory days before the blight (a fungus) of the early 20th century, a worthwhile mission. The American chestnut is probably the fastest growing hardwood there is, and a healthy specimen can live over 300 years. The American chestnuts in higher elevations seem more resistant to the fungus; that is probably where ultimately they will have their day in the sun once again, so to speak.

    Favorite tree of the week: the “ironwood” or “musclewood,” aptly named because its wood is very hard (used to make ball bearings and various gears and cogs in the late 19th century); the trunk has a sinewy look, much like it has muscles…

  • Alan

    Summer leaves, golden,
    touching everything like rain,
    falling on the Earth.

  • Jason Buc

    The very best moments in my life have always been punctuated with arboreal life. From graduation photos to days in Wilcox park admiring the weeping willows, trees are the gentle giants we live with.

  • Yani Horan

    I’m so proud of you my son.


  • Yani Horan

    I’m so proud of you my son.


  • http://www.facebook.com/mannysfo Emanuel Salinas

    I loved this podcast!! Does anyone knows what is the poem or short story they made reference of from Eudora Welty? goes somewhat like about “a peach tree by the fence”?

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  • Pingback: LiTREEture 5: Horan & The Trees that Inspired America’s Literary Greats | DAILY DOSE OF ART

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