It's midday, midwinter, and it's gray—
no path here between the road and shore.
Where I stand, in sword fern and salal,
a muddy leaf-mulch poultices the ground.
I'm small here in a crowd of creaking alders.
They're damn tall for slender as they are.
I hardly feel the wind but see them shift
like sleepy soldiers waiting with no orders.
I don't know how old they are. They're patched
all over with white lichen, slashed with coal-dark
moss-infested scars where limbs are gone.
I might have a few years on these hosts,
but they're the more exposed, and must've gathered
up from loam and sandstone, down from cloud
and sun, inside through phloem and xylem
to the columned heartwood, wordless though
it is, something known. So I listen,
with not an ear, but something open hidden
under coat and skin. Near-silent here
not ten yards from the car. And though it's hours
down the road, I'll make it home in time
for dinner. But what of the dead?
What about the ones yet to appear?
It's these mortal trees that know. I've come
to ask them, while the wet cold seeps
through soles and sock-wool to the metatarsals.
Above, the woody catkins dangle, bells
with no ring I can hear. I'd better go
without an answer. There, a serrate leaf,
along in its decay down at my feet,
flesh lost from lacey vein-mesh—graceful
bit of thin last layer laid to rest,
it's like a letter no one here's delivered,
but sent to my immediate address
and I'm meant to receive it. So I read it.
I whisper to myself its tiny scripture,
then turn to leave, message sheathed for now
in tissue still to travel, breathe, and speak.
I hope I'll keep, if in a speechless way,
what these quiet alders had to say.