Plant a Tree, Have a Son, Write a Book – Revisited

As promised some time ago, here is an update on that well known saying/quote/phrase. About five years and nine months ago I posted an article titled: ‘Plant a Tree, Have a Son, Write a Book’. If you still haven’t seen that post then click here… 

I say “if you still haven’t seen” because so many have. In fact this is by far the most popular post on this blog. Way, way more hits than anything else. Each week no matter how many people read any new article I post, that one nearly always gets more hits. So recently I decided to ask myself: Why?

But First…. There’s this update… 

In the original post I asked for help. I asked you readers two simple questions: “Can anyone help me with this? Does anyone have any real evidence linking Jose Martí with this quote?”

Despite so many people reading the article I never received any feedback. Until recently! A big thanks to a reader called Tom, who kindly posted a comment about an old book which mentions the quote almost word for word. That book is called  “The Ingoldsby’s Legends” and was written & published in the early 1840s.

The book –  full title: The Ingoldsby Legends, or Mirth and Marvels – is a collection of myths, legends, ghost stories and poetry written supposedly by someone called Thomas Ingoldsby. The author used a pen-name. He was actually an English clergyman named Richard Harris Barham.

In one of the chapters entitled ‘The Blasphemer’s Warning: a lay of St. Romwold‘,  the book says: 

There are three social duties, the whole of the swarm
In this great human hive of ours, ought to perform ,
And that too as soon as conveniently may be ;
The first of the Three is planting a tree
The next producing a book, Then a Baby!

Note the genderless use of “baby” there. Very up-to-date eh? Well it is probably more accurate to say that it is because “baby” rhymes with “tree”. Whereas “son” (nor “daughter” for that matter) does not rhyme with “tree”. I would have expected Victorian England to be a fairly male dominated society – and yet… Victoria was a woman, right? Ah well, let’s not get into that one.  

But here’s the thing (as pointed out by Tom)

The book was written around 1840. But Señor José Martí wasn’t born until 1853. So did José Martí get one of his (supposedly) famous quotes from an old English clergyman? It seems possible. 

Of course the phrase is also said to have other origins – as pointed out in the 2016 post. The Talmud (book of Jewish law) quote would certainly predate both ‘Ingoldsby’s Legends’ and José Martí. But that quote is different enough – (‘A person should build a house, then plant a vineyard, and afterward marry a woman’.) A clergyman in the 1840s however may well have studied the Talmud and was aware of its ‘house’, ‘vineyard’, ‘marry’ phrase.  

So the mystery continues. Did the English clergyman, Mr. Barham,  take the words of the Talmud and modify them slightly? Did he derive it from somewhere else? Or did he invent the phrase himself? 

If anyone has any more insight into this phrase then please let us know.

Who is Reading it and Why?

Back to my own query… Why is this simple little expression or proverb so popular across so many differing countries with such varied cultures and history?

The statistics on the blogging site provide some interesting and curious data…

In the first two months that original post only had a handful of hits. Then nothing for over a year. Then it picked up with several hits (and rising) per month even though it was an old post. Then suddenly from 2019 that post has been read thousands of times each year. With 2021 already set to overtake the highest tallying year (2020) – and we are still only just over half way through this year. The stats also show that it is being read in countries all over the planet, not just the English speaking world. 


I put it down to a few things:

  1. Initially I do not think my blog was being picked up on search engines. So any searching the phrase would not have happened upon this blog.
  2. Since 2019 the blog has definitely been showing up on the various search engines.
  3. This past 12-18 months in particular (ever since the coronavirus scare) I believe people have been searching for something. Maybe several things. Perhaps looking for something philosophical, a goal or something to measure their lives against. What should they have done? What should they still try to achieve? 

Certainly the constant fear instilled by mass media and government officials (almost) over the past 2 years can have an odd effect on the way people think. I believe things like this famous saying resonate with people, especially when they are afraid. What will they leave behind? A son (or daughter), a book, a tree or all three?

Looking back on that post, and more specifically the photos in that first post, it should have read: ‘Have a son, get him to plant the tree, then (maybe) write a book!’ A quick Google search for the phrase puts my original blog post fairly high up the results list. So maybe there just isn’t much more to be found on the subject. Who knows?

And finally… Hemmingway!?

Now I can say right off that I am not a fan of Ernest Hemmingway. I have read a couple of his books and thought they were disappointing. Shit actually! But Hemmingway’s name also pops up in this famous saying. I recently read that Hemmingway was quoted as saying there are four things (not three) that a man should do: “Plant a tree, have a son, write a book and fight a bull.”

He was obviously quoting the already famous proverb only adding his own take on it. He was known to like the bullfights. One of his books even brought the annual ‘running of the bulls’ fiesta of San Fermín (in Pamplona, Spain) to the world’s attention. That novel was titled  ‘Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises’. The fiesta de San Fermin may be worth seeing, but believe me; that book is crap. Let’s just say that I give Hemmingway absolutely no credit for the famous saying. Apart from jumping on the bandwagon…

Note to Tom

Apologies to Tom. I don’t know your location so could not reference which country you were reading from. Tom, if you are out there reading this please feel free to comment again – and maybe let us know. 

One thought on “Plant a Tree, Have a Son, Write a Book – Revisited

  1. I found your site via a web search using Brave browser to find the source of the quote I recalled from years ago: “Every man should plant a tree, build a house, raise a son, and write a book.” Your blog post provided the best explanation found, thank you! I look forward to perusing your many other posts as time permits.

    I’m an older, grumpier dad who has enjoyed the first three admonishments, yet to start on the fourth. It’s in me – just have to find time to get it done!

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