Tree of life

-I-

No-one in town forgot that summer night.
A sultry, restless afternoon gave way
To dusk descending in ramparts of bruised
And brooding clouds. The sun was shuttered out,
The mountains melted. Nature drew a breath
And held it.
                          People scanned the sky. They sniffed
Rain on the air, brushed clinging tentacles
Of hair from sweat-dewed foreheads, hurried round
To check on horses, shut car windows, send
Their pets and children under cover, then
Stood on verandas, watched from kitchens. Now
The weight of air killed every sound, and talk
Dried like cut grass. The storm hung like a great
Black hammer, raised and ready to be swung.
The townsfolk drifted limply off to bed,
Oppressed by heat and silence. Wringing sheets
Were thrown aside with weary sighs and groans.
And then it came: a stranger’s hesitant
Knock at the door. The lucky few who slept
Murmured and shifted. Now the first shy drops
Of rain tapped on hot roofs. The clouds conferred.
Then, reaching an accord, the sky gave way
And fell. Like echoes from some monstrous cave
A thousand miles beneath the earth, a deep
Flat detonation boomed. Hands flew to ears,
Small dogs dived under couches, houses rocked.
The aftershocks rolled round the cowering hills
Like boulders in a snowmelt spate. Again
The clouds collided, heralding the rain
That hurled itself upon the helpless earth
With savage force. Roads ran like creeks, bare ground
Seethed like a boiling pot, and tender plants
First bent, then broke, beneath the water’s weight.
A silver blade sliced through the dark. It seared
The retinas of watchers. For what seemed
An endless age the landscape lay exposed,
Stark, petrified in aching brilliance,
Then vanished. Those who saw the strike would swear
They heard a manic laugh, or shriek of pain.

-II-

Far from the town. A lonely, trackless tract
Of forest on the steep and dusty rim
Of some lost canyon on the mountain’s flank.

The bolt that lit up half the world had struck
A mighty pine tree.
                          Thirty thousand amps
Coursed through its ancient trunk. Yet in that one
Ecstatic microsecond, no harm came.
The tree did not catch fire. It did not split.
The energy blazed through it like the surge
The soldier feels the moment he’s aware
He’s in the sniper’s sights.
                          And suddenly
It was transformed.
                          From all its millions
Of stomata, the tree began to breathe
Out poetry. Experience trapped in
Its wordless wood for three long centuries
Rose from it in a vast exultant cloud.
The tree had found its voice. It spoke with joy
Of water entering its roots. It groaned
As it recalled the agonies of sap
Returning in the spring. It took the songs
Of birds that nested in its branches, wove
Them with the rustle of the breezes through
Its needles in a silent symphony.

The tree told of all science had observed
But never felt, and could not understand:
Of water pumping through its phloem; how
Its cells swelled and contracted; of its deep
Slow drawing in of CO2, and clean
Life-giving exhalations; how it caught
The sunlight in its leaves, and fed on stars.

Its voice filled all the forest, mingling with
Steam rising from the sun-warmed undergrowth
And searching out each hollow of the hills.
And as the sun rose higher, so the song
Grew louder – a gigantic chorus missed
By elk and eagle, bear and butterfly.

The tree spoke on. Its understanding grew.
Reflex responses turned to acts of will.
It realised it was no longer bound
By those laws that had governed it, and all
Its countless brethren, since the first seed stirred.

All summer, then, the tree declaimed and learned
Until its consciousness awoke. In shock
It realised the other trees had heard
No word, no single syllable – and if
They had, they’d not replied, or understood

The tree now knew its voice would not be heard
Among the grey-green ranks of its own kind.
To stay was to remain a lump of wood,
Unheeded and unseen. It had to reach
That other world it sensed must lie beyond
This lonely place. It must escape – or die.

Slow. Slow. Deliberate as a man
Who peels a Band Aid from his hairy leg
The tree began to rip itself away
From stony soil baked brick-hard by the sun.
The dry ground pulsed, heaved, cracked as knotted roots
Convulsed and flexed like hatching snakes. And though
Each torn stump flamed, the tree would not desist.
It laboured on: its trunk twisted and writhed
Though no wind blew; from fissures in its bark
Came moans of pain, while resin seeped like blood.

The beauty of its poetry gave way
To ugliness and violence; its sweet
And lyrical refrains were now replaced
With savage imprecations poisoning
The air; its clear songs lost in howls of rage.

But it was done. One last, titanic thrust
And from the place where it stood undisturbed
For fifteen generations, it was free.
It stood some hours, recovering its strength.
The burning of its torn and broken roots
At last subsided.
                          Then, uncertainly,
It grasped the startled earth, and tried to move.

At first, its gains were too small to be seen.
Its roots were weak, and any sudden shift
Could topple it. The roots felt out the ground
As delicate as surgeon’s fingers, gripped
With power to shatter concrete. Driven on
By some deep impulse, it began to crawl.


-III-

The forest ranger spotted it. And screamed.
He hit the brakes. The truck fishtailed. Stones flew
And dust erupted. When it cleared, he threw
Himself out of the door, heart thudding, ran
Towards the apparition. Everything
He knew and understood tried to deny
What he was seeing. Yet there was no doubt:

Slow, steady, purposeful, the tree advanced
Along the logging road, bending this way
And that to keep its balance.
                          And the man
Stood stricken with confusion, dread and doubt.

He slipped and scrambled to the truck and called
The office. Though they laughed at first, the fear
And passion in his voice were all too real.
Was he a lunatic, or did he speak
Some dark, disturbing truth? The boss was firm:
Stay where you are. I’m coming. Do not move.

He found the ranger standing, stunned and mute,
Right where he said he’d be. The boss’s jaw
Fell slack. But not for long. The dollars flashed
Like fireworks in his mind. Man, this was it:
The winning ticket in life’s lottery –
A goddamned miracle! With hands that shook
And trembling voice, he called the newspaper.

-IV-

It did not take them long.
                          By noon next day
The town was overrun. Battalions
Of journalists moved in. The cameras rolled
And satellites bounced images into
A billion disbelieving eyes and brains.
Newspaper headlines blazed. Switchboards were jammed.
Hotels rooms, flights and rental cars sold out
In seconds as the story swept the world.

Behind the news teams came the scientists:
A task force of the brightest botanists
Geneticists and biochemists streamed
From universities around the globe.
They measured, probed, examined leaves and bark,
Took samples of the sap and roots. They swapped
Hypotheses and theories; plans for clones
And micro-propagation were proposed.

By now the true believers had converged.
Some claimed it a as god, while others saw
The devil’s hand at work.
                          All were agreed:
A strange and wondrous thing had happened that
No science or religion could explain.

The money men won out, of course.
                          They sent
A helicopter and a sling, and plucked
The tree out of the forest, set it down
Inside a giant city stadium
Where people paid their dollars just to sit
Entranced and watch, heads shaking, from the stands.

-V-

Slowly and aimlessly, the tree patrolled
The vast and empty space. A sombre cloud
Of poems rising imperceptibly
Above its tattered branches: a lament
From some forgotten world; the lonely cry
Of all the Wild imprisoned: far from home,
Bewildered, lost, abandoned, and afraid.

The tree sobbed out its heart. Its poems rose
Unheeded in the gritty, choking air.
The fumes and filth infected every line,
And tainted them with rage, spite and despair.
The concrete rubbed its roots raw; and the din
And clamour of the city drove like nails
Into its flaking bark. It knew no rest
And craved the silent precincts of the woods.

New revelations broke upon the tree:
Though millions watched and wondered, no one heard.
They cared not for its wisdom; all it might
Have told them of the world. Its quest had failed:
The separation ran too wide, too deep.
All it had suffered, striven for, was lost.

A shimmering of falling needles. Bark
Cracked like old parchment. Shrivelled roots. Bare limbs.
They fed and watered frantically. In vain.

With its last failing gasps, the tree now spoke
Of forests long forgotten, bright clear streams,
Of sharp, sweet air, and vast unfathomed nights:
A vanished world passed down through root and seed
It could have shared, had they had ears to hear.

The tree was still. Its songs and poems ceased.

And with it died a dream. Humanity
Forgot, disowned, denied all it had seen
As some collective madness, or a trick.
The scientists retreated to their labs,
And there resumed their work unravelling
The inner mysteries of plants. They wrote
Arcane and learned papers only they
Could understand, and flew to conferences around the world
To argue every detail.
                          And the one
That could have told them every secret stood
Encased in glass and silence for all time.

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9 thoughts on “Tree of life

  1. That, of course, is extraordinary Nick! I thought at first I was reading an encomium to Nature, but then a gothic tale, and finally a satire on modern life with its money-lenders, journalists and scientists! It was all three I suppose.
    A departure for you in style too, though not I think in themes and concerns.
    (A tiny point for you to delete: did you mean ‘wordless woOd’?)

  2. Thanks you as always, John. I first wrote this over 20 years ago as a prose piece, but it suddenly occurred to me it might work better in blank verse. I’ll leave others to decide if it has! I was worried it might too long, too fanciful, or both, so I’m delighted that you stuck with it all the way to the end – and read it closely enough to pick up a typo, for which I am even further in your debt! N.

  3. What magic, Nick. I am absolutely enchanted. I felt the storm, and then came the lightning and the tree coming to life and awareness as the old Celtic stories, and Birnamwood from Shakespeare, lit alive an universe long gone. But then! The modern world intrudes in its curious, scientific, money-grubbing way. The miracle of a sentient tree and the poetry it is and seeks falls on ears that investigate endlessly, and then find a way to profit, but cannot hear. The Celtic world of sentience within trees and rocks is undiscovered while trying to communicate itself. Finally, in the way of all great tragedies, its poetry unheard, the tree dies in a stadium where it is admired mindlessly by millions–and then is forgotten as the world hurtles into its endless concerns that do not touch the soul of miracles and what truly is.
    This is neither too long or too fanciful, but filled with symbolism that sings of another way of comprehending the universe, putting poetry rather than investigation at the core of the miracles that we do not fathom in the depths of our knowledge. This is a work of significance and, I suspect, has a hint of the Yggdrasil and Odin about it. The Tree of Life is an excellent title, and the poem stands as a powerful message to us all.

    • As so often, you reassure me with your wise and generous words, Tom. Thank you. I was very nervous about attempting this, never mind putting it in the public domain. I still worry that my work is too naive, and reveals both my questionable ability to cope with the modern world, and my somewhat tenuous grip on reality! I’ve always seen it as my mission as a writer (at least in part) to give a voice to the wordless things of Nature; perhaps because I feel more at home among them than my own kind sometimes. As I mentioned in my reply to John’s comment, this started out as a short story when I was in my early 20s: in fact, it just missed the shortlist for a national prize. In their feedback, the judges suggested it might contain a poem that was trying to get out: it’s taken me two decades, but they were right! N.

      • Naïve Nick? I suppose to a certain kind of mind you, and probable me too, are naïve, but what does that really mean? Poetry by its very doing represents a kind of naivety. It uses symbols and metaphors to look into a world that is more about change than being, and in doing so its searches for meaning that does not deny science and technology exactly, but puts those in the stream of what it means to have earth, time, and humanity. David Agnew just moved from his old apartment that had grown a wall of building where there was once sky and a place for birds. I don’t believe he is naïve in doing so. I think he is reaching for a deepness that exist in the contemporary world, but is often denied in favor of profit and the paving over of the human spirit. In your best poetry you explore that human spirit, using tools not often seen in the hands of those considering themselves sophisticated in today’s sense, and that spirit alights knowledge, values, and attributes that are core to who we all are as human beings. I admire that effort and ability.

  4. I’ve said it before, Tom: your comments stand as poems in their own right, and that is a truly great gift. I’m sure some would say we poets are naive in thinking we can create a different (better?) world for ourselves, and somehow bypass the all-powerful profit motive. But at least we try, my friend; at least we try. And in these little acts of rebellion against the ‘real’ world, we remain free men. N.

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