The gathering heat is to the trees on the undulating hills
That stretch from green to blue to gray and out of view
As a summer morning is to children just released from school.
Centuries of springs on those same hillsides are like
Years of mornings in the child’s new, unfolding life.
Through the blur of centuries, the rain, the wind, the
Under fire kindled in the strobing dark;
By years in which rain does not come at all;
By strange beetles rending the straining fabric of the canopy,
By lice gnawing roots, fungus consuming bark—
By these the forest mutates, perishes in places, spreads in salients,
Jumping rivers, as survivors find cool rot in which to start again.
So, too, by seasons and years do children bend to what each
So they suffer as their brothers disappear,
As their mother vanishes behind hooded eyes,
As their father departs, testing memory.
So, too, comes lightning from the dark, a brutal awakening,
Blows, groans, sudden lights, the crunch of tires on gravel,
Silence, the tinkle of ice in a glass,
Then silence again and a rushing dark without sleep.
So, too, children perish, founder, become rootbound,
Or spread across a dry arroyo to new ground,
To cool, wet rot at the base of canyon walls
That admit the sun by daily increments
Like a saline drip: just enough to survive.
The forest broods without counting time,
As generations of creatures metamorphose through its shade and sudden flame,
Changing tack only by the chance projections of hardy seed
Blown ahead of the advancing ash,
Lodging in a crevice as the volcanic violence rushes past,
Perishing or thriving in the new basalt world that has engulfed
The ancient land of which it was the last expression.
It, too, that seed, arches up then tumbles to rot,
Offering a cool bed for the seeds of its own succession and that of others
Until its land, too, in its time is petrified, gouged by sliding ice, and filled with water.
Around that water, once the sun returns, new trees grow and
And form a soft blanket that coaxes life again from seeds blown and carried,
Those seeds pushing out stalks and blooms whose sunny fragrance
Entices insects to alight just long enough to be consumed
By feathered dragons whose cries are the only sound around that water …
Until around that water the people come and build their
And show their children how to spot among the shattered shale
Of millions of years of crushed forest, ruined by heat and ice and ash,
The patterns of the tiny leaves and creatures imprinted on the stone
Before it was stone, when it was liquid fire from the center of the earth.
And the child, forgetting for an instant that is just long
The hot fear of the night before, the angry voices, the stifled sob,
The crunching of the gravel,
Grips the flat, black fossil, cocks back a slender arm
And spins the earth’s solemn memory
Out across the plaintive, brooding face of the lake,
Counting as it bounces on the water
One, ten, twenty times before succumbing.
These remnants of the eons surround the silent child until,
He rejoins the newer fossils of his own life:
The books read to him in husky, hurried, and sometimes happy voices
Until he could read them to himself;
His old clothes on an unsuspecting baby sister;
The tasseled cord atop his glum ancestor’s dully gleaming sword on the cabin wall;
A drawer of medals, lockets, and other talismans to which he turns
Whenever he is left in peace—
Talismans to which he senses, somehow, that he is connected,
Of which he, in the cool rot of the afternoon, is the quiet expression.