Attempts at a Redwood

The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable.

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

During the Year of Adventure, I visited the redwoods. At Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, little campsites, carpeted in the soft brown litterfall that the trees let go, are nestled almost immaterially amid giant trunks. Even the most intrusive RV looks unprepossessing in the soft light and gently dwarfing perspective that reigns under this canopy, and in the hike-and-bike section where I stayed, our little clearings with our little tents felt like warm vole burrows.

Under the quiet shade of the redwoods there, I realized, unexpectedly, that if I wanted to write about this experience, I could never manage it in prose. I’ve barely ever written poetry, but I still recognized that only a poem could come close to conveying the experience—and even then anything I could write would only be an attempt. I even found the title for the group of poems I would have to write—“Attempts at a Redwood”—but didn’t start while I was there, and after I left and thought about starting the effort, the feeling was too hard to bring back.

Last month I went again, with Misty, and this time I started writing before we left, so I wouldn’t lose the spirit of the experience. I didn’t finish there, but I have now—I’ve done what I can with the unfamiliar tool of poetry to explain something that is probably fundamentally unexplainable.


Analysis

  • You purpose to explain the universe?
  • You, who cannot explain a single redwood.
  • The coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) can grow to 350 feet or more, with a base diameter of about 20 feet. The oldest coast redwoods are about 2,000 years old and show no signs of dying out. They resist insects, fire, and rot to a remarkable degree, and their vigor in sprouting back when cut or badly burned is an important factor in their longevity.1
  • Yes, but there is no tree in that:
  • At best a photograph.
  • Small image,
    • That it might fit in
  • A small mind.
  • Let go your theodolite.
  • Let go your calipers.
  • Let them be melted down
    • And do you no more harm.
  • Let the jaundice drain from your eye.
  • Stand here;
  • Place your temporary life
  • Next to this tree larger than imagination.
  • Who comprehends whom?
  • Begin here:
  • One chip,
  • Picked up from the ground,
  • Of the wood we call only “red”
  • (Our tongues and lifespans
  • Insufficient to describe
  • All it is).
  • All the world’s engineers
  • Cannot synthesize its like.
  • Hold the chip up
  • To the tree it came from.
  • A drop from a waterfall:
  • The small miracle in your hand
  • A wisp of a hint
  • Of the miracle above you.
  • In a universe diffuse, desert, and entropic
  • A life solid and sure
  • And ancient and full.
  • Cipher me that.

A Handle

  • I am searching for a corner
  • By which to begin to grasp this tree.
  • Here:
  • A ring of bulging toes,
  • Lava frozen on touching the ground,
  • Heaped to an ankle out of my reach overhead—
  • The trunk’s unhurried preamble
  • Already a living boulder
  • In whose shadow everyone
    • Is pebbles and straw—
  • Before it gets around
  • To really climbing.
  • Or here:
  • Breadth,
  • The only aspect
  • I can take in at one look—
  • Made still impossible
  • By its very visibility:
  • A tree can be embraced,
  • Considered with its background,
  • Related to its neighbors
  • And to my passing self.
  • But this creature is of another order:
  • Its brown expanse a landform;
  • It forms its own background,
  • And it must be explored,
  • Mysteries on its far side discovered.
  • Surely it is not a dweller in the forest’s realm
  • But a realm itself?
  • Or here:
  • Blocken, blackened bark
  • Last memory of a fire—
  • Time with its centuries
  • Has stolen the evidence everyone guarded
    • From their tombs,
  • Its otherwise perfect crime
  • Still slyly disclosed
  • Only by its old friend.
  • Having begun to grasp, I look up,
    • And up.
  • My furthest imaginings
  • Find themselves breathlessly outpaced
  • And land in a treetop incommensurable
  • In a forest all commensurate.

Within

  • Two great trunks
  • From the same roots.
  • In some forgotten age
  • One did not survive the fire:
  • Halfway to the sky
  • Its flight is blackly arrested.
  • A curtain of wood remains
  • Draped immovably between them,
  • A room hollowed beneath
  • By flames whose echoes,
  • Graven in polygons of char,
  • Still make my fingers shy from imagined embers.
  • A creature whose home is at once
  • Underground, upon the earth, and in the heavens
  • Must beat a pulse
  • Deep and slow enough
  • To enfold these realms
  • And all who live within.
  • In the cindered room
  • Its sound will embrace me.
  • I step in.
  • Dark
  • Brown
  • Thick-walled
  • Silence
  • That eclipses
  • All silences.
  • I should have known
  • From long acquaintance with the green:
  • As it falls to us who crawl and climb and fly
  • To breathe the air
    • That they steadily render
  • To eat the fruits
    • That they alchemically build—
  • So we add to the world a commotion
  • A din of birdsong, footsteps, heartbeats
    • That they calmly subtract.

Pain

  • Do you not know pain? I wonder.
  • Beyond the scars that roof me
  • Ascends a tree soft, unworried, and hale.
  • Pain?
  • I am sorry
  • That you should know such a thing.
  • Here
  • We help each other
  • And we have patience
  • And we attend the order
    • That orders the orders
  • That is to say,
  • We have home.
  • Do you not know home?

The Fallen

  • Here and there
  • My unpeaceful footsteps
  • Resound hollowly
  • On airier ground—
  • Knocking on the hard crust of good bread.
  • The fallen have been here,
  • As recently as a millennium ago.
  • They have been everywhere, here,
  • And are everywhere.
  • Some are yet aboveground.
  • Were I a bird
  • Inheritor of eons of vertical thought
  • Perhaps I could fully see a living redwood.
  • But my mind flows along the ground
  • And it is a fallen tree that I can understand.
  • I clamber up.
  • Up here, a bridge
  • From eroded roots
  • To the unknown.
  • Though it is the straightest clear line in sight
  • I cannot see the end
  • And must hike
  • To find the secondhand sky.
  • After some travel
  • I wonder how one tree
  • Can encompass a journey.
  • And in the end there is no end
  • Top always lost
    • Down a ravine, into a river
  • As if it were boundless
  • As if even laid low here
  • The tree guards the secret
  • Of the highest heights.
  • Your fall
  • Marked no tragedy
  • You will remain
  • Among ancestors and descendants,
  • The sprays of sorrel and fern
  • On your yielding wood
  • Your continuing laughter.

Their Own World

  • On up
  • Past the soft riffle of annuals and ephemerals
  • Past the scattered bristly puffs of bushes
  • Past the moss-rimed serpent-staves
    • Of modest broadleaves
  • Past the outstretched fingertips
    • Of straight-upbeaming evergreens
    • Enough and more to claim other canopies
  • Blows a calm
  • Breathed only
  • By one tribe.
  • Skimming this day of my small life
  • Through the braiding eddies
  • Of the neighborhood children’s lives
  • That splash the old giants’ feet
  • I still my strand of scurrying to stare
  • And wonder:
  • What do they do up there,
  • With all that time?
  • A tree does not look down
  • From eyes amid its crown
  • It perceives
    • What its leaf-pores breathe,
    • What its root-hairs wind among,
    • What its bark deflects and admits:
  • Uncountable patient awarenesses.
  • Up there they are knowing, in this way,
    • The peace of hanging mist
    • The peace of sunlight
    • The peace of a rainstorm
    • The peace of a violent wind
  • Their air is filled each dawn
    • And each dusk
    • And each moment between,
  • The short endlessness of twenty-four hours
  • Brimful, into eternity
  • Of the appreciation
  • Of ones whose only need
  • Is to appreciate it.
  • Together these organ pipes sound
  • The single silent chord
  • Of creation.

Our Towers

  • On a mountain ten thousand feet high
  • A fly, they say, lands every ten thousand years
  • And dislodges a single grain of sand.
  • When the mountain has worn to a plain
  • Eternity will have begun.
  • In a grove of ten thousand redwoods
  • A fly lands whenever it pleases
  • And when the mountain has worn to a plain
  • The grove will stand as young as it always has.
  • Our concrete towers, taller and thicker,
  • Draw our minds
  • But redwoods living today
  • Will know a world without them
  • And will still draw our hearts.

The Takeaway

  • We come
  • Are humbled
  • And leave
  • Bearing the awe
  • Until we bury it
  • Under our bored days.
  • Were we but a quarter our size
  • Would not other trees still us
  • Daily—
  • Sycamore, cottonwood, cedar?
  • Might we grasp
  • That not only the superlative is sacred?
  • Might we then
  • Even look further down
  • To locust, to hazel, to fern
  • And find that the existence of the profane
  • Was a bad mythology?
  • How lucky the jay
  • Who perches always amid this clarity,
  • The ant
  • For whom it is the ground itself.
  • I have understood
  • By standing under
  • And will always attempt
  • To be so small.
  1. After a brochure from Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. 

File under: poetry, writing, nature, Year of Transformation · Places: Cascadia


Mary Troxel

I can’t even begin to express my awe at your poem. Normally, I have trouble with much of poetry, but yours is amazingly beautiful and meaningful. You NEED to get your writing out there because the world needs it. It needs YOU. Grandma

Chuck

I’m working on it. I’ve discovered that to write anything good, I usually need several undistracted hours to get into a groove. That much time is hard to come by on this trip, but I find it when I can. Someday I anticipate living on a farm that has a winter full of such hours. What else to do when everything is buried under three feet of snow and you’ve already fed the livestock and milked the cow?

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Chuck

So apparently we’re going to try and get this thing published. It’ll be ironic if after all the prose I’ve written, the first thing of mine that goes into print outside my high school newspaper is one of the only poems I’ve ever written, but sometimes life is a little ironic.

My mom (above) has gotten poetry published before and she’s also living in a place with stable postal and internet service, so she’s going to help out on the communication end.

MomSpoon River Anthology seems to be a book from 1915, not a periodical. Is there a similar-named publication you’re thinking of?

Reply
Mom

Mom

You’re right about SNA….I was thinking of Prairie Schooner. But I’ve actually submitted this to Crazyhorse and we’ll see what they say. It takes some time for these publicatios to respond.

Chuck

Sweet. Is it not the done thing to submit to a bunch of different publications and, if you have the luxury of having more than one acceptance, choose whichever one seems best or responded first?

Reply
Carlos

Carlos

Hiya Chuck it’s your old friend Carlos! Birthday tidings to Mekade and love to you both. You transported me back to my visits to the redwoods. Thank you, and yes, you are surely a poet! Beautiful stuff. Hope to see you soon!

Reply

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