Big Lonely Doug, last tree standing in a clearcut. It takes 500 years to grow a tree this big, and five minutes to cut it down. – T.J. Watt photo
by Sherry Marr
I have a very special poem to share with you this week; it gave me the idea for this week’s challenge. It was written by Vancouver Poet Laureate, Fiona Tinwei Lam.
THE TREES HAVE NO TONGUES
Fiona Tinwei Lam
Yet they sough and sigh as they sway,
receiving sunlight, open-palmed,
or creak and moan in winter blasts.
Dawn to dusk, biophonic chorales
held within and between upheld limbs –
trills, pecks, caws, thrums, hoots.
Within each trunk, clicks, pops and crackles
as tiny embolisms of air break
tension, tensile rivers coursing
in ultrasonic song up
to bough, branch, twig,
while below the forest floor,
lacing roots entwine
in a wood-wide web of questing
dendrites enmeshed in fungi
to commune with kin,
nurse saplings, nourish the ailing,
or plot and warn as they record
each marauding. The forest
suspends its breath with every felled
giant. Roar of uprooted centuries,
wrenching of earthlimb from earthflesh.
Who will hear?
As the world smoulders,
let each poem be
a fallen tree’s tongue.
How my heart leaped at this idea – that, in our poems, we can be the voice of falling trees, can speak their fear and pain, and also their beauty and life-giving properties, as well as being a voice for the many beyond-human beings that share this planet with us and are suffering so terribly because of how we humans live on the earth.
I found this poem, and many wonderful others, in a recently published anthology titled Worth More Standing ~ Poets and Activists Pay Homage to Trees. This wonderful volume was edited by Christine Lowther, Tofino’s Poet Laureate from April 2020 to May 2022. (She called herself the covid laureate!) Caitlin Press published it this spring, and in fall brought out its companion volume, Worth More Growing, tree poems written by youth.
Chris recently viewed the forests from above. She said the clearcutting was stomach-turning. But she also saw visible signs that forests are dying from drought. She says her lifelong activism began in the womb when her pregnant mother, (the noted Vancouver poet Pat Lowther), read poems at anti-Vietnam War rallies. As very young children, Chris and her sister joined their mum in picketing a South Vancouver development site; they were trying to save a pair of old trees before they came down. Chris is still passionately doing that work today.
When Chris was older, she blockaded in the Walbran Valley; she was arrested in Clayoquot Sound in 1992. That arrest and subsequent parole barred her from returning to the same blockade site in the summer of ’93, when about 1000 people were removed by police, but she participated in other ways.
In 2001, Chris sat down in the fall zone of a huge 800 year old red cedar named Eik, which was about to be felled by a developer. Soon, other residents joined her, and the faller took his chainsaw home. The larger community rallied and raised thousands of dollars to brace and buttress the tree, which greets visitors to Tofino as they enter town.
“Old trees are necessary for carbon sequestration,” says Chris. (Mature trees store significant carbon and help to cool the planet. It takes 25 years before trees begin to absorb carbon in amounts that help counter emissions. Cutting down what little old growth is left is both criminal and suicidal, in my opinion.) As a pivotal member of Tofino Natural Heritage, Chris works passionately to protect the remainder of Tonquin forest, threatened by further development, and other significant trees under threat. The group also works with District Council, urging a tree protection bylaw, while there are still some trees left to protect.
“Trees need allies,” Chris implores. “Humans won’t survive without trees, and the beyond-human realm needs a voice too.”
Chris and I often talk about what the future looks like for the world’s children. In so many places, children, their families and non-human beings are already suffering terribly. I asked Chris if I might include the following poem, which wasn’t in the anthology, but is one of her many beautiful poems about the trees she loves so much. In this poem, she is pulling up to the floathome where she lives for half the year, up the inlet from Tofino, in a glorious cove, with bears and wolves and otters for company.
In the boat you looked up at the mountain and said
But the bare crowns—the trees are dead.
You might be used to tree farms, plantations:
rows of the young not allowed to live
until their crowns become noble and unclad.
Ancient forest includes all ages,
a mix of green tops and grey.
And the child dreamed
the leaning loose-branched old maple
down the end of their street
could have been allowed to live.
Docking. And you said
That towering old snag could fall at any minute.
Or in several centuries. It stands dead
almost as long as it stood alive.
An osprey’s lookout perch.
A reaching reminder of how tall
the whole forest used to be.
And the child dreamed
of the snag even taller, alive and green,
bright with its bare and feathered future.
At the table you studied the forest
through the window, with binoculars.
There’s another soaring old snag in there,
you said. Far in. Smooth bark
bleached white by centuries of sun.
There’s no trail, but there is a scarred,
branchless grey spear prodding the clouds
somewhere back there.
Once in a while it emerges into view.
And the child dreamed of pygmy-owls
living secretly inside the white snag,
and of black bears in the grey spear
suckling in a high-entry maternity den.
Leaving, you said Some decay is good.
And the child dreamed
of the braced trees in all the cities of Japan.
And the child arrived home
gathered neighbours, cables, tools
built support structures
to keep the trees and people safe.
Note: This poem was twigged by Pat Lowther’s “Early Winters.” I learned of black bears’ high-entry maternity dens from Wildlife & Trees in British Columbia.- Christine Lowther
The tag on this tree means it was about to be cut down. Now it is no more, one of the beauties clearcut in Tonquin forest to make way for housing.
As we contemplate trees, deforestation and the heating, distressed planet, once again world leaders gather at COP27 to give dire warnings about the cost of our addiction to fossil fuels. Half of Pakistan recently underwater, Africa in terrible drought and famine, wars and threats of war everywhere, extreme climate events world-wide, and the talking goes on. The longer the world delays, the higher the cost globally.
Al Gore made it clear. “We are all here today because we continue to use the thin blue shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet as an open sewer. Today, as every day, we are spewing 163 million tonnes of man-made, heat-trapping pollution into the sky. This is the equal of 600,000 Hiroshima atom bombs exploding every day.”
A pause, to let that sink in. It is almost beyond comprehension.
(How different the world would be today had Al Gore been elected President when he ran in 1988 or 2000.)
Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, asked those assembled, “How do companies make $200 billion dollars in profits in the last three months and not expect to contribute at least ten cents on every dollar to a loss and damage fund?” The fund would be to help with the cost of major climate damages in developing nations. “While they reap the profit, the planet is burning,” he said, “and the ones who contribute the least to the climate crisis are reaping the whirlwind.”
I have never understood why governments don’t tax corporations proportionally, according to income, the way they do we serfs at the bottom of the food chain.
It is good to hear plain talk from world leaders. One wishes this sense of urgency had been felt 40, or even 20 years ago. But finally, the climate crisis has reached mainstream news. I am hoping constituents will consider this information when they go to the polls, to elect leaders who will take the tough stance the climate crisis demands. We live in tenuous hope, though we feel we must be very close to the tipping point, if we have not already passed it. What we need to do, at the very least, is slow the pace of rising temperatures by lowering emissions.
In Canada, deceptive reporting by the government allows logging companies to get away with greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of the oil-sands, contrary to the carbon-neutral image the industry portrays, reports Nature Canada. Canada’s action plan doesn’t mention logging emissions, and has no strategy to require logging companies to do their share in reducing emissions (or even cleaning up after they devastate whole mountainsides.) Worse, the government actually subsidizes logging companies. It makes no sense. At COP26, Prime Minister Trudeau pledged to stop deforestation by 2030. However, at the rapid pace of clearcutting, it’s not clear how much forest will remain by then. Not much.
In Tofino, until recent years a rainforest, we now have drought through spring, summer and fall. Between drought, clearcutting and development, Vancouver Island’s trees – the buffer between the sun and our becoming pancakes on a griddle – are swiftly disappearing. Companies are cutting trees faster in response, making money while the sun shines (hotter every year.)
“As the world smoulders / let each poem be / a falling tree’s tongue,” the poet wrote. My heart lifted when I read it. We can be their tongues, their voices, their allies, their protectors. And their tears, when they fall.
For your challenge: Let’s speak for the trees, for the old-growth, for the beyond-human beings who live in the forest. Or speak as the trees, saying what you think they would like to be able to tell us. I’ll include some poems from the anthology for inspiration.
(Tofino Poet Laureate 2018 – 2019)
new moon pulls the tide out like a drawer
high in the canopy, wind from the west
kitten-paw branches swat sunrays tree to tree
throw, catch, devour, inhale holy food: light
the forest lures you, a pilgrim
yellow beams pour, gulped by a thousand thirsting needles
this light sang from the sun eight minutes and twenty seconds ago
blazed through the vacuum of space, sought out these trees
each a column of radiance
and you are washed alive
you stand before a Sitka spruce, wind and light aflutter
realms of beings alive in her broad crown, brown-eyed bark
straight-plummeting trunk, warp and weft of roots
in her lee a well of windless quiet
under spring skin, sap gurgles skyward, fuses
with incoming light, marries Earth to Sun
tree bride luminous in cattail moss, amber pearls of resin
forest floor a drumskin, lungs at work
your own pulse bounding
like gravity, this union holds you rooted;
without treeforce there is only the dust of death,
hostility of elements, a world unmoored
all of us petrified
“At the last judgement we shall all be trees” – Margaret Atwood
in their roots and branches,
what we are
ambassadors between the land
and high air
setting a breathing shape
against the sky
as you and I do
the spring also breaks blossoms
into our hands
as the tree works
light into bread
its thousands of tongues
tasting the weather
as we taste the electric
weather of each other
Trees moving against the air
diagram what is
most alive in us
like breath misting and clearing
on a mirror
we mutually breathe
TO-DO LIST FOR TOWN TREE PROTECTORS
Write to the local newsroom: describe how trees matter rather a lot.
Write to council with questions & friendly suggestions.
Spread far and wide the shocker that a tree has to mature to begin
sequestering carbon, so keeping ancients is better than planting newbies.
Lobby individual councillors, known for years.
Point out how ample shade mitigates a heat dome;
a full canopy buffers a red sun & breaks up smoke.
Write to the manager of public spaces, who once saved your life.
Write to the sustainability director, who jogs your favourite beach.
Write to developers. Beg for new climate-smart plans.
Write to the town planner: propose that trees matter rather a lot.
Relate how standing dead trees are vital to birds and wildlife,
while not automatically hazardous to humans. How, in fact, their roots
soak up rain water, prevent floods. How intact forests save lives.
Write to the public works head, who directs arborists.
Write to arborists begging them to assess trees less warily & more creatively.
Remind land owners it’s ok to brace and buttress leaning or hollow trunks;
it’s all right to guard their pines for the atmospheric river.
Write to the local health authority pleading for the lives of the last two trees
standing tall near the heli-pad zone.
Count trees, stumps and rings, everywhere between Načiks and the cemetery.
Make inventory lists of significant trees, those lost, and those planted (the shortest list of all.)
Agree to research other small towns’ tree protection bylaws
for the busy sustainability manager.
Write to the national park; tell them you are a cyclist.
Ask if they will budge on killing 2,000 trees for a bike path.
Write facebook posts: detail how trees matter rather a lot.
Follow advice from a councillor to re-form the old activist group
to add credibility & delegate tasks. Branch out. Proclaim the unspoken shame:
these trees are all on stolen Tla-o-qui-aht land.
Stay on top of emotions. Climb a trunk to cry on. Funnel despair into a raging poem
& keep your smile steady for every meeting with authorities or fallers.
Mourn the heli-pad trees; remember them – red maple, tall green oak, ancient hemlocks
preceding them. How they shaded & beautified hospital patients’ rooms, sped healing.
Mourn the bike path cedars, airport alders, boles, burls, nests, smoking debris piles.
Enter fall zones & talk to people holding chainsaws.
When they say they’re calling the cops offer them your phone
because you’ve got the bylaw enforcement officer on the line,
and you’ve already called the cops. Strap on your goggles.
Keep in mind there are times to depart fall zones & times to stay.
This is such a sad post Sherry.
When I first read your prompt I went off on tangent and wrote a poem about a fallen tree I came across recently. Re-reading your prompt I realised I’ve gone off topic but will link my poem anyway because it was indirectly inspired by the prompt. Hope that’s ok.
It absolutely is, Suzanne. Thanks for linking and sharing. We are losing too many trees, everywhere.
Fantastic challenge, Sherry. May our poems this week be a timbered choir.
Thanks, Brendan. I really loved putting this one together, since the topic and the poets are so close to home. I am struck by the treeless laughter of the wind in your poem, as we feel it on this coast too.
A beautiful post Sherry. (K)
A moving reminder to conserve our trees in every place, Sherry. They are the very lungs of the earth.
Thank you, friends. I really enjoyed putting this one together.
Having spent the last two days travelling I have reached my destination only to be waylaid by a viral flu. My brain is saying no to poetic writing today having spent most of the day in semi fever. It may change but in honour of this beautiful thread I will offer up my Tree Tanka project, a work in progress, which will, in the end, be three volumes, each consisting of 36 poems/photos. Poems/Photos from Vol I are being slowly uploaded and my submission for this prompt will link to this category. Thank You Sherry for this deeply moving prompt.
Paul, I am so sorry you have the flu. I hear it is a bad one this year. Rest and get well. Your tree trilogy project sounds absolutely amazing. Keep us updated as each volume becomes available, wont you?
Thank you Sherry for this moving and beautiful prompt.
So happy you like it, Lindi.
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I wrote the original of this poem, “Fallen”, in 1994, after a memorable, uplifting visit to the Redwood Forest in Humbolt County, California with my three children. I just today wrote an addendum that reflects the current situation regarding our forests. This addendum is not so uplifting.
Your piece you shared today was excellently written, and very moving Sherry! ✌🏼🕊❤️
Thanks, Rob. I remember seeing the redwoods when I was five years old. Can still remember how majestic they were.
Wow. Wildfires still burning in BC in mid-November. Atmospheric rivers expected in winter. Now we have two seasons – wildfire and flood. Sigh.