Wednesday, November 9, 2016

THE MIND OF TREES

Early morning here in Teche country is cloudy, one of those somber gray mornings that signals the exodus of fall and the advent of winter (minus the cold temps). If we aren’t careful, we could feel oppressed by the tin color of the sky at 7 a.m. I’m sitting here, looking out at falling oak and pecan leaves and thinking of the winter of my childhood when doomsday talk and arguments at mealtimes were silenced by what I considered to be an inane bit of redirection my father made in the midst of cloudy atmospheres: “Hush now, look at the trees…” We were always puzzled by this cease fire phrase.

The trees in that scenario were tall, cheerful pines right outside the screen porch where we shared meals, and I remember how I looked out at the resinous trees and smelled the sharp, clean scent of pine needles. We’d put down our forks and knives (figuratively speaking), and silence would save the day. Today, I’m in New Iberia, Louisiana where I live near a coulee overhung by water oaks, live oaks, and swamp dogwood and remember my father’s little saying: “Look at the trees.” In retrospect, I figure my father meant for us to observe their wisdom in being silent observers of disagreeable scenes, or, rather, I choose to assign that meaning to his phrase this morning. We’ve had such a long siege of disagreeable political scenes, and psychiatrists have been busy handling victims of stress brought on by the country’s divisiveness for well over a year.

During a session of a self-help course I once took, we were advised to be careful about being a "guy in a diner," a person who often offers opinions just to hear himself talk, and we certainly have had our fill of guys in a diner this past year. However, my father’s words, “look at the trees,” now resound in a room where the television is turned off, and I view the wind ruffling the leaves on my cherished, silent oak and think: It's difficult to be uncivil when you're silent.

Trees peopled my writing when at the age of seven, I wrote my first story that featured a girl who disappeared into a large hole in an oak tree and took up residence. Inside was a room that held furniture similar to the furnishings within the homes of Beatrix Potter’s animals where a table was set for tea. People like Potter and our imminent Louisiana tree hugger, Caroline Dormon (Miss Carrie, now deceased) attributed human and creaturely qualities to trees, but they recognized that their dominant quality was one of being profoundly, wisely silent. The tree in that early story was, for me, a safe place to be. Later, I mutilated a page in my mother's Elbert Hubbard's Scrapbook, scissoring out the phrase: "Silence is a true thing and never betrays" and putting it in a notebook of quotations I liked. 

In A Slow Moving Stream, my most recent book of poetry, I penned a poem about trees inspired by my journey, traveling by car, the length of the Bayou Teche from Port Barre to Morgan City, Louisiana last year. It’s called “The Mind of Trees,” and last week I chose to read it at a poetry reading in Baton Rouge, Louisiana:

“The Mind of Trees”

They were drawn to trees
lining the banks of the Teche,
hanging over the brown water,
wide arms stretched out in welcome.
The live oaks, an enclosure
against a world that had exiled them,
palmetto and Spanish dagger growing close by,
cypress in the swamp becoming their homes.

They liked the sturdiness of lordly oaks
and the water meandering past,
sat under encompassing branches,
eating and drinking.
If the trees could talk, they said,
and made up stories
about what the oaks had heard.

The trees outlasted their language.
No matter who came
the language disappeared into English –
French, Spanish, German, Chitimacha.
English filled the horizon,
the patois of each clan,
buried under oaks, words waiting.

The trees absorbed all of it
and when hurricanes felled them
they were cut into logs,
loggers finding stories in their language
imbedded in the rings,
began to preserve what had been lost.

Word by word, they created
an articulation of arriving,
the sound of memory offering itself
from a distant longing. They heard
what they had been told not to hear—
testimonies for their being there.
And they praised the trees
for finding a way without them.

Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan appearing in A Slow Moving Stream




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