Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Struck Tree \ Black Salve

Alan: Getting to know each local tree and boulder is one of the satisfactions of living a long time in the same place.

The Struck Tree

“Take it down,” you said,
seeing the wild corkscrew wound
running to the roots, and the blasted top.

We had held on, that previous day,
through a storm so loud it was within us,
flashes and cracking faster than our frantic hearts,
and one sizzling jolt so close
we thought the house must smoke.

Now we looked and found,
down the slope a hundred feet, near the well,
one hackmatack among the scattered many,
wrecked.  “Take it down, it won’t live anyway.”

But other chores insisted, and a small
reluctance to cut a tree not yet a hazard,
so it stood.  And has stood this quarter century or more,

shorter now, and missing limbs;
the white, bleached scar forever resisting,
the scabbed seams forever reaching out
as if seeking some way back
to some prelapsarian wholeness:

this tortured, favored tree,
made newly green each spring, furred with fresh growth,
and in the fall green-gold and gold before the snows.

Still here, I say in passing, still here,
alive to every breeze and all the strokes of earth and heaven.
Still here, old friend, still here.

Note: This poem replaces “Crash Course,” which was originally posted on July 27, 2011 and posted a second time in error.

Nancy:  In the Depression, families were responsible for their own health care, even if that meant horse liniment and home-made ointments.  Like our family’s black salve, I expect most of these medicines came with stories, personal folklore, and enough mystery to make the process – ritual, really – unforgettable.

Black Salve

Like all good medicine, ours
was passed on; it was told and retold;
it had its roots in mystery and shadowy healers,
and it came to us as a gift.

Like all good medicine, ours
had a keeper; my grandmother was the one
who gathered together the mystery,
and this is mostly her story, this medicine story.

Granny called me to begin the ritual.  Getting
clean jars and lining them up in rows
was my part of the ritual.  Folding and unfolding
papers, aromatic mysteries, was my part of the ritual.

Granny stoked the fire.  Granny emptied
the sweet, pungent, oily, powdered
contents of her bottles, cans, papers, jars
into the kettle.  Granny cut the stirring stick.

Granny stirred.  This part of the medicine was more homely
than mystery; all the women of my life knew stirring
and testing.  I knew jam before I knew multiplication,
the pull of it in the pot, the slide of it on the spoon.

Granny talked.  She talked me back to the wilderness.
She built my family out of a clearing in the woods;
her grandfather was a child, she was a child, I was a child,
and all the while she talked, steam rose, steam with the sting of turpentine.

Granny’s story ended.  I should be, now, the keeper of the mystery.
I should tell the story of the falling tree, the broken bone;
I should mime the gratitude, the gift, the silent melting away
into the forest.  I should cut my own stick, and stir, and stir.

Black salve is my story now.  Even as everything changes, I remember
my part, the essence of my part: to take a gift, to pass it on.

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