“The War Against the Trees” is included in Stanley Kunitz’s third volume of poetry Selected Poems, 1928–1958. Though Selected Poems was rejected by eight publishers—three of whom did not read the manuscript—the collection won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize. In the Author’s Note to Selected Poems, Kunitz writes that the poems are not arranged chronologically but “in groups that bear some relevance to the themes, the arguments, that have preoccupied me since I began to write.” The grouping that contains “The War Against the Trees,” entitled “The Terrible Threshold,” is likely so-named because the poems in it describe various ways in which humanity and the earth are on the brink of catastrophic change. It is the last poem in the section. Perhaps the reason “The War Against the Trees” appears in many anthologies is partially due to its obvious sympathies with environmental causes.
“The War Against the Trees” describes bulldozers toppling and digging out plants and large trees on a parcel of lawn recently purchased by an oil company. The poet mourns the loss of the past, of nature, and the absence of human concern for the “war’s” victims, the plants and animals. Before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped inspire the environmental movement, “The War Against the Trees” recognized the local attack on a plot of land as part of a larger, undeclared war on nature. In an interview with Kunitz, critic Selden Rodman asserts that “The War Against the Trees” was an early ecological statement. Kunitz agreed, quipping that “one of the measures of art is the amount of wilderness it contains.”