In the late summer of 2020, I was staying in London, looking after family, but a big part of my heart was in Oregon, because a dear friend of mine, Barry Lopez, was ill, and the wildfires that blazed through the state that summer were worsening, getting closer and closer to the home he shared with his wife, the writer Debra Gwartney, along the McKenzie River. All I could think of was how the trees around him were like an extended group of elders from whom he had learned so much. Out of fear and love I wrote this poem to pay homage to what seeds of generosity and patience they had planted in him, and also to the friendship that grew in their shade, between us, on a visit I made to him some years ago.
Woken in the blue hours, starlings dive and swirl
in the dark. I grind coffee, carry it to the garden,
count the hours back to you. Too many and too
few. Summers you’d retreat to a den
for August baseball, the mature cedar and
douglas fir darkening to deep shade at dusk.
Night games and their holy liturgy. Windups
and changeups, the living box score. Base
hits and pine tar, inside heat and extra innings.
Now I worry you’re keeping vigil over the smoking
tree line. Knowing when the roar of fire gets close
it’s time to go. Decades those trees offered counsel,
told you when wind was coming, or snow. I like
to think on stark forest nights when you were alone,
you were not alone, that they’d brought news of
bear cubs, what newts cared to say,
how a dream can grow in the gap between
the forest floor and the first run of branches,
make of a river and its brambles a home, if you
learned to live without taking alone. So many offerings
are new requests. A mistake I nearly made that cold
fall. We’d finished our walk and tuned in to the
Yankees game, I wanted to reach out, grab
your hand so you knew my gratitude, instead I heard
a voice in the warm inner air. It said relax, we’re
speaking by simply sitting here.•
This poem appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.