The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Life of Trees: A Poem

The Life of Trees: A Poem

We see ourselves in them. We lean on them for lessons on how to be more human and what resilience means. They are our timekeepers, our spiritual guides, our kin.

I spend a great deal of time in an old-growth forest awned by trees older than me by centuries. Trees beneath which thousands of other humans have walked on feet that are no more, carrying their sorrows and their dreams in hearts that are now soil. Trees that have witnessed world wars and weddings, that have been growing since before we built the bomb and decoded the human genome, before Einstein dreamt up relativity and Nina Simone dreamt up “Mississippi Goddam,” some of them alive when Bach was alive.

I often wonder what they would say if they could speak. But perhaps they would say nothing at all — perhaps they would speak a truth beyond words.

That is what poet Dorianne Laux intimates in her lovely poem “The Life of Trees,” found in her collection Only As the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems (public library) and read here to the sound of cellist and composer Zoë Keating’s piece “Optimist” from her transcendent record Into the Trees.

by Dorianne Laux

The pines rub their great noise
into the spangled dark, scratch
their itchy boughs against the house,
and the moan’s mystery translates roughly
into drudgery of ownership: time
to drag the ladder from the shed,
climb onto the roof with a saw
between my teeth, cut
those suckers down. What’s reality
if not a long exhaustive cringe
from the blade, the teeth? I want to sleep
and dream the life of trees, beings
from the muted world who care
nothing for Money, Politics, Power,
Will or Right, who want little from the night
but a few dead stars going dim, a white owl
lifting from their limbs, who want only
to sink their roots into the wet ground
and terrify the worms or shake
their bleary heads like fashion models
or old hippies. If trees could speak
they wouldn’t, only hum some low
green note, roll their pinecones
down the empty streets and blame it,
with a shrug, on the cold wind.
During the day they sleep inside
their furry bark, clouds shredding
like ancient lace above their crowns.
Sun. Rain. Snow. Wind. They fear
nothing but the Hurricane, and Fire,
that whipped bully who rises up
and becomes his own dead father.
In the storms the young ones
bend and bend and the old know
they may not make it, go down
with the power lines sparking,
broken at the trunk. They fling
their branches, forked sacrifice
to the beaten earth. They do not pray.
If they make a sound it’s eaten
by the wind. And though the stars
return they do not offer thanks, only
ooze a sticky sap from their roundish
concentric wounds, straighten their spines
and breathe, and breathe again.

Complement with Mary Oliver’s poem “When I Am Among the Trees” and Helene Johnson’s “Trees at Night,” then revisit Hermann Hesse’s poetic century-old love letter to trees.

Published March 13, 2023




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