Monday, 21 December 2015

Poems about cutting down trees

It's time to switch on the twinkly lights, huddle round the log burner, and hope that Santa will bring you a Norwegian bestseller about chopping wood. But another student recommendation reminds me of the shadow side of all that cosiness. It's Robert Frost's poem 'Out, Out-' and it's a shocker.

It starts:
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
So far, so bucolic, but things get worse from there (click for full text).

It got me thinking about other poems about chopping down trees. The idea that a felled tree leaves behind a "luminous emptiness" is a beautiful way of describing an unsettling absence and an unexpected space. It comes from story by the poet Seamus Heaney:
In 1939 ... an aunt of mine planted a chestnut tree in a jam jar. When it began to sprout, she broke the jar, made a hole and transplanted the thing under a hedge in front of the house. Over the years, the seedling shot up into a young tree that rose taller and taller above the boxwood hedge. And over the years I came to identify my own life with the life of the chestnut tree.
This was because everybody remembered and constantly repeated the fact that it had been planted the year I was born; also because I was something of a favourite with that particular aunt, so her affection came to be symbolised in the tree; and also perhaps because the chestnut was the one significant thing that grew as I grew. ...
When I was in my early teens, the family moved away from that house and the new owners of the place eventually cut down every tree around the yard and the lane and the garden including the chestnut tree. We all deplored that, of course, but life went on ... and for years I gave no particular thought to the place we had left or to my tree which had been felled. Then, all of a sudden, a couple of years ago, I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind's eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the  young tree.
(This is from 'A Placeless Heaven' in Heaney's Nobel prize winning collection The Government of the Tongue.) Heaney makes that story into a metaphor for writing poetry - he describes a young poet writing about the tree itself, an older poet writing about the space the tree left behind. The chopped down chestnut tree makes an appearance in his sonnet sequence 'Clearances'.

Jennifer K Sweeney's 'How to uproot a tree' reflects on age and experience in a different way. A young couple attempt to pull up a tree, but it's not easy. The couple are naive, inexperienced, and expect everything is going to go their way smoothly. The tree proves a challenging adversary.
Stupidity helps.
Naiveté that your hands will undo
what does perfectly without you.
My husband and I made the decision
not to stop until the task was done,
the small anemic tree made room
for something prettier.
We’d pulled before, pale hand over wide hand,
a marriage of pulling toward us what we wanted,
pushing away what we did not.
We had a shovel which was mostly for show.
It was mostly our fingers tunneling the dirt
toward a tangle of false beginnings.
The roots were branched and bearded,
some had spurs
and one of them was wholly reptilian.
They had been where we had not
and held a knit gravity
that was not in their will to let go.
We bent the trunk to the ground and sat on it,
twisted from all angles.
How like ropes it was,
the sickly thing asserting its will
only now at the end,
blind but beyond
the idea of leaving the earth.

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