Thursday, June 25, 2020

Poetry Friday -- Sand Creek Cottonwoods

Credit for photo

Sand Creek Cottonwoods

At first
the shade
of the gnarled cottonwoods
lining the dry creek bed
is a relief.

Sun blazes
in the cloudless azure sky.

At first
the rustle 
of the cottonwood leaves
in the near-constant wind
is a susurrus.

Leaf-babble
in the wide silent plains.

But suddenly
the age
of the gnarled cottonwoods
and the dates on the battleground marker
sink in.

These trees witnessed

And now
the rustle 
of the cottonwood leaves
repeats the names of slaughtered elders, women, and children
in a dirge.

Leaf-testimony
in the wide silent plains.


©Mary Lee Hahn, 2020




Back at the end of May, The Poetry Sisters invited All the Rest of Us to join them in their monthly challenges. The challenge for June was to write a poem using the imagery of thick woods and the word susurrus. This got me thinking about how Ohio was 95% forest (actual statistic) before the Europeans got here and made this land into 90% corn and soybean farms (not an actual statistic...it feels that way, but the Internet tells me it's closer to 50%). I did some research on the bits of old growth forest that remain in Ohio (it might be worth it to visit them all), and learned that they are so old that they are aging out. The oldest (400+ years) oaks and hickories are coming to the end of their lifespans and are being replaced by maples and beeches.

Research is all well and good, but I don't have a natural affinity with thick woods because there aren't that many trees on the arid high plains of eastern Colorado where I grew up. So I was a little stuck. Then, last weekend, I got unstuck in a completely roundabout way. I attended the (virtual, of course) Inclusive STEM/CS Summit. Two of the presenters began with a slide stating, "I am presenting on land stolen from the...(insert name of tribe)." This got me thinking about the Native inhabitants of eastern Colorado. Why didn't I know who they were without asking Google? (Arapaho and Cherokee) Why didn't I learn about them in school? Why had I never heard about the Sand Creek Massacre? 

When I read that some of the cottonwoods along Sand Creek date back to the mid-1800's and so could possibly have witnessed the massacre...well, I knew I had my poem, even if the woods there aren't thick in an "East of the Mississippi" way.

Karen has the Poetry Friday Roundup this week at Karen's Got a Blog!


13 comments:

  1. This is a revelation and beautifully wrought, you of those spare eastern plains, now listening differently to "the rustle /of the cottonwood leaves/repeats the names. . ." I did a dig once with students & a group who were researching a plot east of Denver & we studied those homesteaders who had taken over from the Arapaho, found leavings of a soddy, but deep down, the archaeologists showed us arrowheads, too. But you're right, I never learned any of it in my schooling. Thanks, Mary Lee

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  2. Lovely poem, Mary Lee! There is so much of our history that we never learned about, isn't there?

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  3. Leaf-babble and leaf-testimony are now emblazoned in my mind. There are such powerful lines in your poem. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. Oh... the cottonwoods. You must read Tree in the Trail by Holling C Holling. Have you? History as told by a tree. Love your poem! Thanks...

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  5. This is a wonderful poem, and such evocative words like "leaf babble" and 'Rustle of the cottonwood trees" that speak of what they've seen. I looked up details of the Sand Creek Massacre, yet another that I needed to know more about.

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  6. Wow, this strikes me -
    I've always hated the trees in the South with that Spanish moss strangling and hanging, like silent, dusty green nooses. Somehow the murmur of the names evokes remembrance that is easier to bear. This is both brutal and lovely.

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  7. Such a powerful poem Mary Lee, and you came to the history of eastern Colorado round-about but also serendipitously via your virtual course hearing about additional stolen land–and this needs change too– that the history of native tribes in the US and their land has been covered over. Thanks for uncovering a small portion of it in your poem and making a strong political statement.

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  8. This is powerful poetry, Mary Lee. On another note, I'm impressed that you can write it so authentically without leaving your home.

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  9. All I can think when I read this is the phrase, "say their names." The trees in my life are much more than simple plant matter. I commune with them...I love how you personify the leaves saying the names of those who were killed.

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  10. A very powerful poem, Mary Lee. As you commented elsewhere, you are acknowledging, writing this tragic incident into the world, and making paving stones for a path forward. I love this! It's a call to action, one which poets are equipped for. 'Leaf babble' and 'leaf testimony' are both amazing.

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  11. Mary Lee, your poem hits a cord. There is such sadness knowing that violence and inhumanity have been a long-standing issue in American history. Your poem is eye-opening and beautifully-written.

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  12. Holy...That transformation from leaf-babble (which I loved even before I got to your ending) to leaf-testimony is so dramatic and wonderful. I love that you are listening, and I am trying to be a better listener of historical racism and opponent of modern racism. Thank you for this, Mary Lee.

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  13. Phew! This poem speaks loudly. I will think of this every time I hear the leaves rustling. And share it with my sixth graders. I love the word susurrus- it's new to me.

    On a related note. I went to the Inclusive Stem/CS Summit last weekend too. I thought it was incredible.

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