Calloused as an Old Oak Burr
Walking in the forests of a wide valley
Rimmed by cliffs above us, rolling mist
Over the slopes out across the blue vastness
The vultures glided across the blue sky from
One side to the other, while kites and kestrels
Worked the fields where the woods were
Cut when first men walked within the walls.
We stood under the canopy of branches
In the shade of old oaks, ages growing
Slowly seeking their sunlight, ever taller,
Thicker boles, holding aloft leaves and,
Even when those died, in winter, green
Epiphytes; a host of other lives, for centuries,
Saying to all in the forest: “Behold, I am here.”
Feeding feast for insects and birds that eat them;
Showering grazed ground with acorns for boar;
Robins following rootings, under those, creating
Holes where night-time animals hide yet.
One had recently fallen, after perhaps half a
Millennium spreading seeds and supporting
Epiphytic ferns: now hanging upside down
From the bough that held them high so easy
Over which we climbed on the clean bark.
And I thought of those who carried an axe
Into these woods to gather firewood,
To create charcoal from the oaks:
Brought perhaps as soon as they could walk
And pick up a twig to help their father,
And kept at it until they could walk no more:
Years of seasons spent sweating and freezing alternatively
Snacking on dark bread and forest berries,
Bring back home a snared rabbit if one was had.
How many injuries did they accumulate,
Inflicted by such occupations? A series of
Splinters, cuts, bruises and bones broken;
But shrugged off and shouldered on
Until calloused, like the knots and burrs
Of the trunks we touch: the pollarded boughs
Wounded, but budding forth once more for fifty years,
Until the axe of those weathered workers eventually fell again.
For even great oaks are eventually tumbled,
Even if only by time. And those ferns and lichens
That thought they clung to a solid structure are thrown
Over, to cling and seek the sun as best they can.
We sat upon the curved bough and ate our own victuals,
Thinking of those workers who listened to the same scene
Of songbirds and wind, and wondered of what life was
Like outside these woods, these walls of valley wide
Yet long and uneasily walked out of, and wished
For more, for escape, easiness, for freedom from their destiny,
But accepted, their lives would be lived, alongside these trees.
Then the telephone took my attention for a time:
A thread landing in my lap with a crack-like impact of
A snapping branch upon me,
And I sat upon a stump and sipped water to keep down the lump
In my throat at this long twitter list of lads and lassies
Of a too young age who’d taken their own lives, the last option:
Locked in the loss that seems so extensive in these times
Of lockdown, long as a valley apparently without exit;
The looking out at a world that looks so perfect, looking back;
The pressure like storm clouds gathered above the cliffs,
Building until smooth wood cracks and saplings snap.
If only they could have come to this forest, felt the breathing branches,
The soft sunspots, the birdsong rest upon them.
If only they could have stuck around long enough, to resist
Instead of rejecting the pain, the splintered spirit, the bruised soul.
If only they’d stayed a little longer, told another their wishes:
Shouted, screamed, even to a pillow, “I am here and I exist!
“I have a life that is well lived, and will be lived if given
The chance; a hand, a hug, a kiss.”
For even those who never had to lift a stick or chop a log, can
Build up burrs, callouses, train themselves to toughness,
Over the course of a century or half, from the finer grain
Of slow winter growth gaining perspective to appreciate this:
‘Tis only at the end we can reminisce.
Looking back, we can count up mistakes, regrets,
See the setbacks we withstood, taking bad with good,
Standing tall till Nature takes us, rather than the blade,
If only because we owe it to the saplings stretching in our shade.
Though only the beasts and bugs it gave life to
Knew of its presence, tall as it was, and only those, who
Were touched by its life will note its fall,
And all the rest of us are ignorant of what it meant to them,
For a tree, that is perhaps enough;
And if we could but be as wise, it would
Too, be sufficient for us.
For those who have fallen too soon….
In the Mist
Calling cranes cross overhead like ghosts in the gloom,
Bells echo down the hillsides from hidden forest horses
Like shots across the valley, voices and dog barks below
Reveal others on the path as invisible to us as we to them
Knowing surrounds only by memory and sounds in the
Silence, the mist expands our senses out like landscape,
Until the sun lifts the veil and sends down into our pocket
Of the earth, a gentle caress of golden warmth and sets
The sky blue brightness shining off mountain cloud
Shimmering across imagined land beneath silver shroud.
The Same Scene a Thousand Times
A painter can select one scene,
One view, from a certain lookout,
Turn it into their subject: treat
It a thousand ways, in varying lights.
But can a poet? Write a thousand times
Of one mountain range and valley?
Of all the many shadows and scudding
Clouds along its sides, and all
Aspects of the mists across its sky.
A painter can settle in one spot,
A cottage on a cliff:
Paint through the window.
A poet may install himself
In the same place,
But can he use words more than once
To illustrate the landscape?
Or once used, need he seek new views
To inspire new vocabularies?
It seems the answer lies in the
Lines, led along by eyes, looking
In ever-finer focus always finds
The mind inspired to write.
I have no photos of the scenes that inspired the first poem, but the second poem was inspired by sunset in the same spot I watch sunset most Sunday evenings, and each time it’s inspiring, but can I write of the same valley for the rest of my life? Possibly. It depends less on the inspiration and more on my ability I suppose!
It comes for all of us.
But some of us are waiting. And we’re not going to be made to leave so easily.
And sometimes we can see the beauty in it all.
Winter Takes Grip of Us
Clouds fall, darker as they drop down upon the valley.
Night draws onwards, quick as winter wind, whistling
Along eaves, whipping at chattering apple leaves,
Stripping trees, snapping stalks in the garden.
Bamboo poles that have supported peppers and
Tomatoes all summer bend over, while the plants
Are sapped of green, and shrivel even as ripening
Sole fruits dangle in the gusts. Only life remains
It seems in hard cabbages and cauliflowers
Curled over to cover hearts from coming frosts.
Still, we sit, after gleaning the garden for all that was
Tasty and tender, those last mouthfuls of summer
Not too damaged or dried up after stalks snapped,
Refusing to leave even though no leaves are left, and
The night leaves us bereft of light: lingering outside
In twilight until winter takes the whole, sole
Sitters separated from the stalks that once sustained
Us, supported strongly, holding up only memories of
The sunshine that once suffused the blossoming apple
Grove, and unbent seedlings sprouted all around us.