Turning Darkness into Light: The Trees Tremble

After all the false dawns,
who is this who unerringly paints
the first rays in their true colours?
We have kept vigil with owls
when the occult noises of the night
fell tauntingly silent
and a breeze got up
as if for morning.
This time the trees tremble.
Is it with a kind of reckless joy
at the gentle light
lapping their leaves
like the very first turn of a tide?
Timid creatures creep out of burrows
sensing kindness
and the old crow on the cattle-shed roof
folds his wings and dreams.
~Richard Bauckham “First Light”

Who is this who has come to change everything in my life and everything within my heart?

Who is this who paints the skies to speak to me from His creation?

Who is this who wraps me firmly within His grasp and holds me tenderly when I am trembling afraid?

There will be no more false dawns.
He brings the sun with Him
and I am here, a witness,
standing before Him.

If I am alive this time next year
Will I have arrived in time to share?
And mine is about as good this far
And I’m still applied to what you are

And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I’m preparing every part for you

And I heard from the trees a great parade
And I heard from the hills a band was made
And will I be invited to the sound?
And will I be a part of what you’ve made?

And I am throwing all my thoughts away
And I’m destroying every bet I’ve made
And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I’m preparing every part for you
For you

~Sufjan Stevens

Struck Senseless

I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.

It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.

I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Too much of the time
I fixate on what I think I can control in life~
what I see, hear, taste, feel

Instead –
how must I appear to my Maker
as I begin each day?
-my utter astonishment at waking up,
-my true gratitude for each breathless moment,
-my pealing resonance
when struck senseless by life.

Unseen Nest

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.
~Tess Gallagher “Choices” from Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems.

Am I capable of such tenderness,
such recognition of the well-being of others,
by saving the nest
and all future potential nests
rather than exercise my freedom
to have an unimpeded world view
when and where I want it?

I must not forget:
my right to choose
can only mean
choosing to do right
by those who have no choice.

A Cottonwood Dream

Stand near the river with your feet
slightly apart. Push your toes down
beyond the mud, below the water.
Stretch your arms and head back
deliberately, until straight lines
no longer matter—until the sky
from any angle is your desire.
Let the skin go grey and split open.
If you die a little somewhere
the wind will carve the branches back
into an alphabet
someone will try to remember
how to read. Stay this way
half a century or more, turning leaves
in the half-note tides of the air.
Inside, with that blood so slow
no one hears it, set buds for spring
by each late October. November,
December, dream what it means
being owl…or star.
~Kathleen Cain, “What This Means, Being Cottonwood” from Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace

According to old Morton Lawrence, the original owner of this farm, this particular cottonwood was a special tree. He called it the “Balm of Gilead” tree for the sticky resin that exudes from its spring buds, which he liked to rub into his dry cracked hands. The scent is memorable, both sweet and green, and invokes the smell of spring ground awakening from a long winter.

The big tree stands apart from the rest of the forest, always a sentinel of the seasons, blowing cotton fluff in the late spring and heart-shaped leaves in the fall, covering the surrounding fields.

The buds may well have healing properties, as described in the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, but it is this tree that I depend upon for its unblinking steadiness through the worst wind storms, the driest summers and our iced-over winters. The cottonwood, in its multi-armed reach to the skies, is balm to my eyes, no matter when I look at it — a dream of the healing I’ll find someday in heaven for all that ails me.

The Nation-healing Tree of Life

Sometimes, hard-trying,
it seems I cannot pray–
For doubt, and pain,

and anger, and all strife.

Yet some poor half-fledged prayer-bird from the nest
May fall, flit, fly, perch–crouch in the bowery breast
Of the large, nation-healing tree of life;–


Moveless there sit

through all the burning day,
And on my heart at night

a fresh leaf cooling lay.
~George MacDonald from Diary of an Old Soul

I suspect I’m not the only U.S. citizen who slept fitfully last night, anxious about the election and how our nation’s peoples will accept and move on with life once official results are reported.

There can be no response but to bow in earnest prayer, waiting for a long-needed hatching of healing peace for our diverse beliefs and opinions.

Our lives are half-fledged, not yet fully delivered nor understood, doubt and distrust burns into our flesh like thorns on fire. 

We have become a seething-angry and moaning-sore nation — today we will be further divided between those who win and those who lose.  The moral high ground will go to the graceful loser who concedes defeat in a spirit of unity without stoking the fires of discontent. A gloating winner would bloat us all beyond recognition.

May our prayers for peace rise like a dove from hearts in turmoil,  once again to soar on the wings of eagles.

Peace, come quickly.
Be moved within us; no longer immobile.
Cool our angry words.
Take us to higher ground.
Plow deep our hearts.

One Last Pale Wave

(The Celtic Halloween)

In the season leaves should love,
since it gives them leave to move
through the wind, towards the ground
they were watching while they hung,
legend says there is a seam
stitching darkness like a name.

Now when dying grasses veil
earth from the sky in one last pale
wave, as autumn dies to bring
winter back, and then the spring,
we who die ourselves can peel
back another kind of veil

that hangs among us like thick smoke.
Tonight at last I feel it shake.
I feel the nights stretching away
thousands long behind the days
till they reach the darkness where
all of me is ancestor.

~Annie Finch, from “Samhain” from Eve

There is no denying I am composed of all of the hundreds (thousands?) of my ancestors, carrying their DNA in every cell of my body. Their traits and characteristics pulse continuously in my blood even when at times I wish they didn’t.

On the eve of All Hallow’s, we remember those from whom we come — all those spirited ghosts within our cells who shake and rattle a bit louder this time of year in the foggy darkness.

I wave at them warily from my perch in the 21st century.

I come from somber folk. That explains a lot.

I don’t mind all the peasant farmers I descend from though I wish I could turn off the genes that lead me to eat too much, and worry too much and my tendency toward the melancholy rather than the jocular. Somehow I have suppressed the tendency to drink too much and curse too much. I do come from a long line of believers in ghosts, so these days of Samhain and All Hallows’ tend to open those creaky doors of shivers and chills, so I avoid anything even remotely scary. It only encourages those strands of my DNA.

I am indeed made up of all-ancestor bits and pieces, and can’t deny it. There is some comfort in realizing there is nothing really brand new about me, so I try not to make a fool of myself on behalf of the hundreds of others sitting tidily wrapped up in my nuclei. There is additional comfort knowing a small part of me will continue in my descendants, who will ponder their family tree wondering which great-great-great-great grandparent passed down which annoying characteristic. I wave hopefully from the 21st century to those generations to come, to remind them not to forget those of us who came before. If there are spirits that come to visit on Samhain, I promise to be a friendly ghost.

Let It Find You

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
~David Wagoner “Lost”

I’m frequently lost in the figurative forest of my days on this earth, unsure where I’m heading and struggling to figure out where I’ve been. It seems I have been following a path laid out before me, keeping my head down to make sure I don’t trip over a root or stumble on a rock, when around and above me are the clues to where I am and where I’m going.

So I stand still and breathe deeply of the forest and let it tell me where I am. It can tell when my focus is misdirected.

I was lost, and now am found.

A Genial Light

I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.
There is no season
when such pleasant and sunny spots may be lighted on,
and produce so pleasant an effect on the feelings,

as now in October.
The sunshine is peculiarly genial;
and in sheltered places,

as on the side of a bank, or of a barn or house,
one becomes acquainted and friendly with the sunshine.
It seems to be of a kindly and homely nature.
And the green grass strewn with a few withered leaves looks the more green and beautiful for them.

~Nathaniel Hawthorne
from The American Notebooks

After the keen still days of September,
the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth…
The maple tree in front of the doorstep

burned like a gigantic red torch.
The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze.
The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels,

emerald and topaz and garnet.
Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her…
In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible.
~Elizabeth George Speare from The Witch of Blackbird Pond 

If I were a month,
I would choose to be October:
bathed by a genial and friendly sun,
within a kindly and homely nature,
slowly withering, yet still crisp,
with mild temperature and modest temperament
despite a rain and wind storm or two,
only once in a while foggy.

Most of all,
I would cherish my flashes of burnt umber
as I reluctantly relinquish the light.

Leaves and Lives Falling Away

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do—
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays—
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.


Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.


Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,


leaves and lives
falling away, the spirit, complex,
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way
it will go.
~Grace Butcher, “Learning from Trees” from Poetry of Presence

If I were to die as a leaf,
I would want to change my clothes just bit by bit,
overnight oozing gradually to scarlet,
bleeding into the green a little bit more,
until I’m so unrecognizable,
I’ll seem brand new.

That would be ideal.

The reality is a fading to grey and brown,
my edges withered and torn,
bug-bitten with holes and weather-beaten bruised,
dangling and fearful of letting go
and so forgotten.

So I remember:
no one, not one, falls
without its Maker knowing.
No one, not one, dies
without being made brand new.

A Long, Long Road

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another

It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share

And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all…

~Bobby Scott and Bob Russell from “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”

I know where this road ends to the east: at the very edge of the Cascade foothills, right in the middle of a small tribal nation trying to survive challenging economic times on their reservation land.

Heading west from here, there is another tribal nation trying to survive. In between are farmers who are having to sell their dairy herds because milk prices aren’t keeping up with the cost of maintaining their business. There are families now without sustainable wage employment because large industries have pulled up stakes and closed their doors. There is land that is overpriced as people flee the cities to come to rural surroundings because of ongoing pandemic shutdowns and worries.

There is much sadness all along this country road during times like these, but that’s not new. In another 100 years it will still not be new. There will always be foggy and stormy days interspersed among times of hope and light.

We remain a diverse people of tears and struggle, but we take turns carrying one another when one has what another does not. We still have the sun and the rain and the soil, the turning of the seasons and the rhythm of sun up and sun down.

On our way to there, why not share?