Wednesday, November 16, 2011


The Druid Spirits Weep

Thanks to Eric Thomson for introducing me to an interesting poem on the theme of arboricide, by Catharine Savage Brosman, with the title "Bristlecone Pines," first published in Sewanee Review 114.4 (Fall 2006) 514, and reprinted with minor modifications in her Range of Light: Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), p. 56 (line numbers added by me):
— In the southern Snake Range

They are the old men of the forest, of the world—
gnarled, wizened, stripped of all the inessentials,
living longest in the heights, along the borders
with the iron sky, embracing cold. Their being,
granite hard, is dense enough to break a blade;    5

their limbs and torsos writhe, the sculpted flesh
as twisted as Laocoon. Below, the mountains fall
away into the basin; rivers snake, then disappear
in alkaline oblivion; the greasewood flats reach on
to the horizon. Everything seems vain—the rocks,    10

memorials to nothingness; the wind, a mockery.
Or do the pines remember us, companions—recall
how Jedediah Smith was fed by Indians on rushes
near their grove, and Lehman hammered through
the mountain's hollow limestone heart, to find    15

his predecessors there—or Frémont, following
a vision westward, gazed on the Great Basin?
And will they forgive, compassionate, the ones
who immolated here an ancient, venerable tree,
to violate its core and count the five millennia    20

recorded in its circles? But the druid spirits weep,
I think; the nymphs and sylvan deities still mourn
their forest elders, grown already before Greece
was young—those ravaged boughs dismembered
on the stone, Iphigenia sacrificed in greatest age.    25
The older I get, the less interested I am in man-made attractions (museums, cathedrals, etc.), and the more interested in scenes of natural beauty, such as the places mentioned in this poem, all located within the 77,100 acres of Great Basin National Park, in east central Nevada, near the Utah border. I just took an armchair tour of the park with the aid of Dwight Holing, The Smithsonian Guides to Natural America. The Far West: California and Nevada (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 1996), pp. 212-221, who describes the Snake Range, with its highest point, Wheeler Peak; Lehman Caves; and the bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva).

As their scientific name indicates, some bristlecone pines are among the world's oldest living trees. One of them, nicknamed Prometheus, was older than the pyramids of Egypt when it was cut down in 1964 by geographer Donald Rusk Currey (1934-2004), then a graduate student at the University of North Carolina. See his article "An Ancient Bristlecone Pine Stand in Eastern Nevada," Ecology 46.4 (July 1965) 564-566. This is the tree mentioned in lines 18-21 of Brosman's poem.


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