The Oak and the Rose: Grow Up, But Don’t Look Down

Rose from Concrete

An oak tree and a rosebush grew,
Young and green together,
Talking the talk of growing things-
Wind and water and weather.
And while the rosebush sweetly bloomed
The oak tree grew so high
That now it spoke of newer things-
Eagles, mountain peaks and sky.
“I guess you think you’re pretty great,”
The rose was heard to cry,
Screaming as loud as it possibly could
To the treetop in the sky.
“And now you have no time for flower talk,
Now that you’ve grown so tall.”
“It’s not so much that I’ve grown,” said the tree,
“It’s just that you’ve stayed so small.”

– Shel Silverstein

As a child, I reflected that this poem supports a life of glancing upward – climbing to treetops, mountain peaks and stratospheres. Living in search of altitude, because altitude would guarantee a broader world view. Life’s journey seemed a vertical progression – up, up, up. Growing up meant going up.

As an eight-year-old, the obvious lesson was that the rosebush had bloomed sweetly but without substance. The oak tree saw the world, while the rosebush saw only the ground. One perspective was apparently more valuable than the other. One perspective seemed inherently inclusive of the other, rendering it inferior and even irrelevant.

I no longer think this way.

This poem leaves me rather melancholic. I think about friendships that end and are never formed because we, like the oak tree, value wisdom and perspective only as they descend from high places. Rarely as they emerge from the ground. I think about how the sky presumes to know the earth, presumes that it sees and hears, when it – like the oak tree – can barely register voices from below. I consider how only certain types of experiences are deemed knowledge, of how these limited forms of knowledge entitle us to shut certain doors. Of how we open only doors that seem advantageous to what we care to know and accomplish, to how we care to view the world. Was the oak tree right? As a child, I did not question it. The rosebush had ceased to grow, had stayed small while its friend grew tall.

But, today, I focus instead on the “wind and water and weather” of which both spoke, and with which the rose “sweetly bloomed”. Thriving off the same nutrients, both tree and rosebush grew – one upward, one outward. I don’t know if Silverstein agrees that height is might. I think the real melancholy of this passage is not that we outgrow friendships, but that we fail them when we only value narrow and privileged perspectives. For me, as the adult reflecting on friendships lost and friendships never gained, I wonder how many doors I shut (and ignored) because the pathway to success was about privilege, pedigree and high places. Who have I stupidly turned away? Who have I arrogantly forgotten?

Who calls to me from the ground? Do I hear? Do I cherish? Am I humble?

Grow up, but don’t look down. Lean in, with my ear to the ground.


3 thoughts on “The Oak and the Rose: Grow Up, But Don’t Look Down

  1. I haven’t read this poem in so long and I too looked to the tree as being in the right. But jut like everything else ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not as clear as when we were small.

    Many friendships left and later revisited have an inherent distrust of the friend who left. It’s good to reflect back but I’ve found it to be a futile effort for those friendships I’ve neglected too much. It has however helped me think twice before giving up on someone and invest that much more in the people in my life.

  2. As I approach my seventies, reflecting on philosophical revelations exposed by “The Oak and The Rose”has made me even more aware of the many mistakes I have made during my travels along the “Highway of Life”. Such a shame its not a trial run.

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