English professor Thomas Hill has been known to take his students outside to lie down and stare at the trees, or to cart new students from Risley Hall to the Cornell Orchards to make sure they get there sometime during college.
“A tree is not simply a natural object that we chop down to harvest its wood or eat its nuts,” Hill said. “But in literature a tree is a larger symbol of the world, in both Christian and pre-Christian writing.”
Hill will expand on his research into trees – from their use in medieval fairy tales to their prominence in Biblical stories – when he delivers Cornell Plantations’ 2013 William H. and Jane Torrence Harder Lecture Aug. 28 at 5:30 p.m. in Call Auditorium, Kennedy Hall. His lecture is titled “Pagan and Christian Trees: From Ambrose to ‘Juniper Tree.’”
“When you’re walking through the Plantations or any beautiful place like our campus, and you look around you, it’s hard not to reflect a bit, as writers do,” he said. “There’s a long tradition of including the natural world in literature that I like to show people.”
Hill has studied a tale by the Brothers Grimm, “The Juniper Tree,” in which a young boy is killed by his stepmother and his minced flesh is fed to his father. “Gruesome, I know,” Hill said. When his half-sister places his bones beneath a juniper tree, the boy ascends the tree and is resurrected, first as a bird who rewards his father and sister and takes vengeance on his stepmother, and then as himself.
“In many stories, heroes climb trees and disappear or are resurrected in some way,” Hill said, citing Zacchaeus in the Bible, Dante’s “Inferno,” Virgil, and numerous shamanistic stories in which a “tree of life” represents immortality.
Sonja Skelly, director of education at Cornell Plantations, said the Harder Lecture always focuses on the relationship between literature and nature.
“Our mission is to showcase the importance of plants in people’s lives – that they sustain us, heal us and provide for us,” she said. “But it’s not just about the science behind the plants. It’s about how impactful they are, whether in a cultural sense through literature and art or a well-being sense through walking or exercise.”
Hill’s lecture is free and open to the public and will be followed by a garden party in the Botanical Garden. The Harder Lecture is endowed by Torrence Harder ’65 and named in honor of his parents, William H. Harder ’30 and Jane Torrence Harder.
The Harder lecture is part of the Plantations’ Fall Lecture Series, which includes five other speakers addressing topics from new garden plants to medicinal discoveries to wildlife comebacks and their impact on neighborhoods. Students can sign up for a one-credit course for attending the series.