Pines revolve inside themselves,
revolve without moving. Inhuman,
the spirit of the pine in scope
and intention exceeds the distance
to the sun. The boughs stretch in cold
and touch the azure breaking
and bleeding into pink at dusk.
The few birds twitter and pivot
to face the breeze from Canada.
Because the distance seems remote,
impossible, the roots wrestle
with stony earth and brace themselves
and their burden against a silence
that always threatens to descend
from the dark and fell the entity
into a bleak place where nothing thrives.
Because time measures itself in rings
instead of seasons the snow means
nothing more than rain or sunlight,
only denser, a kind of knowledge
mere intelligence can’t process.
The pine is instinctive.
Its witness overlooks the sins
of beast, vegetable, mineral,
and zeroes on the cosmic moment
when starlight warps a certain angle
to intersect with straining boughs.
How minute the threesome needles
threading the air into lacework
fine enough to drape over moonlight
and conceal the seams that otherwise
would bleed pitch into open wounds.
The pine lurches from one stance
to another without moving—
its long, bottomless witness
true enough to foster epics
no animal voice, not human
or birdsong, can honestly rhyme.
This white pine stand blasted and grim.
Its bark sheathes off in scabs.
Thoreau argued that the spirit
of the white pine would carry it
to heaven, where it would thrive
as surely as a blessed human soul.
Whether or not it attains
that ultimate height this pine,
the stub of a great bifurcation,
attests to lifetimes spent in its shade,
to spirits departed in a calm
of antique leathery earth-tones
or in violence splashed with colors
too vivid for the eye to retain.
Deer cluster and nibble weeds.
They direct their skittish glances
at the darkest parts of the forest
where coyotes breed and plot
and form packs to act in concert.
A lone bobcat browses for mice
among dropped cones split open
and spilling seed. Hard as a fist,
small as a fist, this carnivore
could gut a deer from beneath,
spilling intestines and ripping
the larger creature’s neck when it falls.
Today he ignores the timid deer
although bones litter the forest floor
and shine with immutable voices
the human animal can’t hear.
The mice hear, and flock gnawing
to nourishment coyotes ignore.
A pair of antlers fit to crown
a hunter-king go unloved.
I wanted to find them to present
to you when the solstice darkened
our moods, but the mice got them first,
and the snarl of the bobcat spoke
from the shade of the pine, and the wind,
burdened with disbelief, shattered
the usual prophecies, dumping
their litter under the tree, scratching
at the light with brassy weeds.
At dusk a flock of turkeys struts
from the forest and examines
the weeds for the last scrap of seed.
They ignored me when I prowled
the forest for antlers, they ignore me
now in the shadows of my back yard
where the broken pine maintains
a certain dignity, casting a last
claw-handed image into the dark.
As thunder broke the sky a downburst
of hundred-mile-per-hour gust-front
twisted and snapped the upper half
where it divided. Both trunks spun
and fell into my garden and crushed
a stand of magenta bee balm.
With chainsaw raving I divided
the wreckage into moveable chunks.
The resin smell. Absolute pine.
Raw wood. The soul of a tree.
Nakashima says A mature tree
has witnessed much. In complete
silence it stands immobile,
a god of consciousness.
Yet I feel this ruined tree attempt
to uproot itself and walk
as a damaged man might try to walk
toward a unknown point of salvation.
The pine before the storm struck
was one of dozens littering
my scrawny acres. Since the storm
it has loomed in its injured state
more gloomily and yet more vividly
than the healthy pines nearby.
Even the turkeys favor it, although
roosting snaps dead branches
and tumbles indignant turkeys
to the ground where they strut and preen
as though nothing untoward has occurred.
Pine lacks the richness of walnut,
oak, maple, cherry, rosewood,
which Nakashima favors for sculpting
into furniture of smooth perfection.
But pine frames houses like mine;
and thus embraced I sleep as soundly
as any plutocrat, my wealth,
such as it is, in standing timber,
rhyming myself with my trees.
Pinus strobus, five-leaved pine.
Newfoundland to Georgia.
Intellectual? Yes, upright
and attentive in manner.
Central nervous system? Yes,
a bundle of fiber strung root
to needle-tip, alert to seasons.
Sight? A blessing of genetics,
each cell light-aware, wary.
Witness? Reliable, storing data
in rings of impeccable glory.
Truth-telling? Wood doesn’t lie,
unless lumbered into false
dimensions, shaving half an inch
or more from quoted measure.
Communication? By gesture,
sometimes contrary to wind,
or by casting certain shadows
only the well-trained eye can read.
Thought? Thoughtful rather than
enslaved to the logic of the Greeks.
Dress? The bark sometimes sheds
itself, exposing pale wood
to insects and disease, an act
sometimes mistaken for suicide
but only a lapse, a letting-go
common to aging organisms.
Sex? Yes, but bristling with reserve.
Pleasure? In every breath or scrape
of needle against sky-colored sky.
Foresight? A longing for the sun
and relaxation under starlight.
Thrift? Roots thick with moisture braced
against the droughts of summer.
Thirst? Endless, inevitable.
Religion? The ascent into blue.
A pair of flickers settles
a hole some twenty feet up,
not far below the fracture.
Their view embraces the whole yard.
The insect supply’s impeccable,
the base of the tree rife with ants.
Eggs follow, as they must. Chicks
gaze at the world, which gazes back
in the form of Shale, our gray cat
dying of cancer. No hunter,
only a browser, she regards
the yellow-shafted family
with infinite longing for something
evolution can’t yet satisfy.
Birds descend from dinosaurs
and bear instincts so primal
and focused no mammal can compete.
With undeniable prior claim
that bird spirit radiates from the tree,
shaming would-be predators.
Shale laps it up, lathers herself
in a primitive scent and sighs
the sigh of a long-dying creature.
She leans against her favorite rock,
which retains sun-warmth long after
clouds have obscured the distance.
The flickers will enjoy their season
and fledge all of their children
without disaster or loss. Shale
will die in the winter, though,
and next year the flickers will arrive,
look around, and leave. They won’t return,
not that year, the next, or ever.
With Shale gone we’ve planted succulents
around the rock to honor it.
A gray shadow lingers there,
too faint to suggest anything
but a trick of light, a flutter
of heartbeat we no longer hear.
Waving pine boughs stir the air.
The windless evening doesn’t respond.
The pine aches from the slow decay
of pith, exposed by the storm
a dozen years ago. Cambium,
still functioning, feeds the mass
by strawing nourishment from soil
and rainfall. The heartwood’s
neutral, indifferent. The ants
sampled by the flickers three year ago
have extended their colony
deep into the base of the tree.
The spirit of the pine still aspires
to something I can’t understand
but glimpse when the moon and Venus
together lilt through the upper boughs.
The idea of a tree is too old
for the human mind to comprehend,
but instills in every instance.
Bristlecone pines five thousand years old,
cypress and sequoia three thousand,
junipers, figs, and redwoods two
thousand five hundred years since
they sprouted from seed rebuke me
for plotting to cut down this stub.
Maybe two hundred years old,
but broken and decaying,
it threatens to crush my saplings—
oak, spruce, fir. The white pine
doesn’t live for millennia
even if two hundred feet tall.
But this thirty-foot stump blazes
with vitality. We reckoned it
dead the day the wind shear
beheaded it. But slabs of bark
peel from the jagged wound
and the ants look triumphant
with their trails of sawdust leading
deep into the root mass. A chainsaw,
with a shriek of combustion,
would topple it in seconds.
But who would record the agony
of trees all over the world,
the eloquence of their mourning?
I can’t listen that hard. The dusk
woven in the boughs suggests
how dim the future of this planet
looks from the pine-view, how raw
the heartwood, how wounded the pith,
and how gently the cambium
still bathes the living creation
in the primal matter of which
everything of spirit is made.