Plant a Tree and Reforest the Earth

We are living in a season of grief. We are living in a season of mass bereavements – from Covid19 or other causes – where we are limited in our expressions of mourning. We are also facing grief for injustices done. Sadness is an appropriate response. Anger is an understandable response. In my own sorrow I turned to poetry. This is the book I plucked from the shelf.

Alice Walker brought out this complete collection by The Women’s Press in 1991.

Before I tell you about the poem that I turned to, I want to speak as some one who grew up as a white person in a small town that had one black family and two mixed race families. In 1968 I was eleven and the land of my birth was being shriven with unrest caused by civil rights withheld and a foreign conflict that many did not sanction. Protests that turned ugly were on the 6:30 news most summer evenings. (We religiously watched NBC’s The Huntley Brinkley Report in our household.) That raised my consciousness, as well as the assasinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. What I had to help educate myself and build empathy was good reading matter.

My elementary school publicised a subscription book club where you could buy cheap paperbacks every month. I spent a lot of my weekly allowance with that Book Club. As a book worm tween I was able to buy and read books like Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and a biography of Mary MacLeod Bethune. Because I was also hungry for biographies of women (which were thin on the ground in the 1960s), I understood on some unconscious level the desire of having someone who looks like you reflected in the world. In those days we had a new phrase “role models.” I might not have had the same skin colour as Bethune, but golly she was a Mighty Woman! What reading did for me was educate me about lives that were different from mine, but were interesting and powerfully inspiring. It also gave me context for what was happening contemporaneously. Reading forged a connection that transcended social, racial, religious, and gender differences. It also exercised my empathy muscle and prepared me for reading The Diary of Anne Frank. By puberty I was well informed at just how low humans could go in terms of harming fellow human beings.

So, readers, please give your children books that will give them context to help them understand the why of what it happening at this moment. It will help them in so many ways.

Now, to the poem that helped me write the Sunday Weekly poem and also to navigate my sadness with this moment in our history. The poem is Alice Walker’s “Torture” that runs through a litany of “when they torture your…” loved ones with the response “Plant a Tree.” The final verse runs thus:

When they begin to torture

the trees

and cut down the forest

they have made

start another.

Alice Walker “Torture” from Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful
Let Us Breathe

All the millions cut down
robbing the biozone of CO2...
All the millions burned
in a Holocaust where we learned
nothing.
                  Enough is enough.

Plant a tree for George Floyd.
Then plant another and another.
Plant a tree for the strange fruit
hanging for 400 years
from innocent trees. 
Plant a tree in memory. We too soon 
forget.
                  But, enough is enough.

Plant a tree for the named and the nameless.
Plant a tree for all those who could not breathe.
Plant a tree of all of us who still cannot breathe.
Plant a green lung to ventilate the planet.
Let us breathe.
Let us breathe. 
Plant a tree.


Copyright © Bee Smith 2020. All rights reserved.
Tree on Yeats Lake Isle of Innisfree
Tree on Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree in Lough Gill, Co. Sligo, Ireland

Featured image is a Photo by Pedro Kümmel on Unsplash

Books

Oh, yeah! Books are the best friends when the world is just too people-y. The real BFFS, since words on paper survive even the most awesome of authors. Even when not reading,it can be very soothing just spending time in their company. Every once and a while I have a major tidy up of bookshelves. Not just a feather duster sweep. The major vacuum cleaner and haul the book case away from the wall to really get all the dust out sweep. That kind of tidy up happened with one bookcase yesterday. This is partly as a way for me to figure out how to rationalise the book storage problem in a small house with two avid readers. We do have regular culls and give to the charity shops- usually popular fiction in the crime/mystery genre. (It’s cause Nancy Drew was my first BFF.) But even so, we need more book storage space. We are going to be given a small one, but as I was double stacking books yesterday I began to dream of another six footer for my writing room. So the Poetry Daily celebrates my besties – books! And if you pooh-pooh the power of books – and poetry – then consider the testimonials by people like Jeanette Winterson who credit them with saving their life at some stage. In that double stack, behind the current poetry volumes by Mary Oliver (who was also saved by reading books) are some of my own childhood.lifelines.

Books

Walk right in!
Behold! A world
cupped in my hands.

By the power of
imagination,
an alternate,
new universe,
an abode
bricked and mortared.
Words by the author.
Music played out
in reader's brain.

Transmission
between two covers
our own virtual
reality
for an evening
or an hour.



Copyright © 2019 Bee Smith. All rights reserved.

This Ruined House

As I was easing into poetry practice this morning I was minded of what the late Dermot Healey said in a poetry masterclass I attended many years ago. “Reading is also writing.” We go to other writers for inspiration and reflection. (Maria Popova’s blog “Brain Pickings” is a little oasis to visit.) That is what I did this morning. I picked up the anthology “The Poetry Pharmacy” (ed. William Sieghart, Particular Books) and dipped into it at random. I read two short poems, one by J.R.R. Tolkien, which has a killer final line, “Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” (All that is Gold Does Not Glitter). But the one that captured my imagination was a short poem (Although the Wind) by Izumi Shikibu, translated by a poet I much admire, Jane Hirshfield, together with Mariko Aratami. The title of today’s poetry practice is taken from the final line of that five line, tanka. Living in the Irish countryside this had a particular resonance.

Of  This Ruined House

Ivy is a strangler.
Once let into mortar
it's the last in a series
of assaults.
Once there was passion
here, and thunder.
Then duty went derelict.
The roof caved in,
though the chimney
still stands.

Stone flagging and slates
long ago did
a midnight flit.
They whisper family secrets
still in some suburban
patio floor.
They've planted ivy
in some plastic tubs,
training it to climb
up the back gable wall.


Copyright © 2019 Bee Smith. All rights reserved

After the Writing, the Reading

Life after Lumb Bank has felt chaotic with competing commitments, complicated by the fact that every single one of my pack of Irish girlfriends has an April birthday and there have been or will be four family birthdays, two significant landmark ones.  Then there are the house guests arriving next Tuesday and the fact that writing women tend not to prioritize Spring cleaning until the prospect of visitors looms large.  All this springtime activity is severely cut into my reading time.

 

When  I returned from England I was confronted with a stack of Saturday Guardians  from the three weekends I was gone that I have only managed skimming. I study the Saturday Review section for new titles that I want to put on reserve at the library.  I also felt hungry for fiction reading when I got back but now I am reading more critically, noticing how different authors elide the narrative voices.  Mostly, I’m noticing that many novels just have too many words in them. It costs a pound to reserve a book in Enniskillen Library; although living in Cavan I’m also eligible to have membership in Northern Ireland, which opens every single library in six counties! (I also have membership in counties Cavan and Leitrim; eight counties worth of literature SHOULD be enough to quench any woman’s thirst for reading matter one would think.) For someone with a prodigious reading appetite and small budget  the reserve system is ideal so long as you are prepared to be patient.  Some people idealise nurses as angels.  My angels always are librarians!

 

I once attended a Masterclass given by Dermot Healy, a Cavan born poet and writer. One of his most memorable quotes from the weekend was that “to read is to write.” So all the while I am hoovering up fiction, poetry and life writing I tell my Beloved that I am actually writing. Or perhaps looking for inspiration to lead a workshop, as sharing the inspiration of Lumb Bank and Manchester is on the horizon.

 

I was in Cavan Town earlier this week and saw some of my Creative Colleague Crew at an evaluation meeting with Catriona and Emer, who organised the trip to the UK through Cavan County Council.  The only negative comment on the project was a unanimous verdict on the dire ‘cuisine’ on offer in the hotel package in Manchester. Eating together was great for cohesion.  Uniting in disgust over frozen vegetables gently dehydrating under heat lamps was probably never intended as a team building exercise.  If there had been a dedicated vegetarian on the trip they would have suffered malnutrition.  What we are preparing for  now is the next phase where we will take our knowledge and the fruits of our writing activity into the wider community.

 

There will be a further phase where we will engage in public readings at the Johnston Library, or give workshops to various constituencies in Co. Cavan.  Creative self-expression should be listed as a human right.  The work of social inclusion often intersects with learning how to confidently flex one’s creative muscles. The means, or medium, for that creative self-expression can be in dance, making music, singing, painting, drawing, using fabric, beads, pen, ink.  To create we exert some muscle – the breath in the diaphragm when we sing, the joints flexing as I tap this blog on my laptop, the twist and turn of sinew as a dancer lifts their leg, the photographer lifting  shoulders and  wrists balancing the camera to frame what they see.  Making art is all about the body, even as I am reading the optic nerve and all the magic of light and shadow working the miracle of seeing and reading text on a screen, newspaper or paperback. In making art we are, in the words of poet David Whyte, “a body in full presence.”

 

Primer

Thank you, Sister Donna Marie

for teaching me how to read,

for translating  the shapes

on the pretty frieze above the blackboard,

the curvature of vowels,

the ogham of consonants,

until the a for apple

became a whole world,

a globe spinning on the axis

of words, spilling

a swift course,

flooding the banks of the Nile

where I am Moses in the basket,

found and feted.

Thank you, Sister Donna Marie,

for giving me the power to hold back

oceans and for guiding me

to the very mouth

uttering the secret name of God.

 

Bee Smith sojourned in March 2014 with the Leonardo da Vinci Life Long Learning Programme “Developing Creative Practice Across Borders” to Yorkshire and Lancashire organised by the Cavan Arts and the Social Inclusion Unit offices. She is keeping up the new-found creative writing habit now she is back home in the wilds of West Cavan.