Today I want to share a poem I wrote in 2021, during my sabbatical.
For two months I stayed at Cedars of Peace, a place of retreat connected to the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto, in Nerinx, KY. Seven Eastern red cedars surrounded the yard in front of my cabin. Four days after I arrived, they withstood the straight-line hurricane-force winds that felled a large oak that stood among them. The oak fell across power lines, leaving my cabin in the dark for several days, and the weather turned unseasonably cold in the wake of the storm.
I had gone to Cedars to write about my family’s personal history in the late 1960s in North Carolina, where we found ourselves targeted for our choice of friends and the welcome we gave them in our home. I had gone to listen for a way into the telling of that story in the context of the larger history of white supremacy. I spent hours wandering the paths through the cedars, remembering that, once, that entire region had been covered with water, an inland sea. I sat quiet and listened for the voices of those who had inhabited the land that emerged from the waters, the Shawnee, and others, including the European settlers whose hunger for property was insatiable.
One day these words came to me:
What the Red Cedars Whispered to Me
In full sunlight They are silent In gray damp stillness They speak, but without words, Rather Their presence stretches stealthily (so as not to be casually overheard) into the humid glade, Their roots lay broad claim to the Earth, And songs of birds and cries of crows, so sharp in the blatant radiance of a sunny day, are muted now, transient fragmentary. My eyes lose focus, settle into a different kind of sight, as roots emerge from my feet, my thighs They invite me to join them in this sacred place a sisterhood of seven red cedars I the eighth member of this sacred circle bearing witness to the receding remnants of the ancient sea, all the beings who crept and stalked across the emerging land hallowing and haunting it with tears and prayers, with blood and the slow slip into death’s shadow With laughter, too, the jubilant voices of children, and singing Yes, singing, clapping, stomping, dancing the Earth awake as they turned through seasons of birth and growth, harvest and decay yielding the first fruits, an offering not to appease some jealous god Rather to say: We are here, It is good. We are together, we are relations. It is good It is good. Echoes of the first day the Mystery shining, hallowing the dark, the evening moving into morning into evening into morning-- Seven times, it is written. It is good. We are here, We are together, we are relations. It is good. And on the eighth day? What shall we say about the eighth day as new eyes opened and surveyed all that Divine Mystery had made? The two-legged staked their claim first to the apple, then to the tree, and then to the right to privacy and from there it was a short step to everything in their sight: the right to private property staggering half-formed into Eden, Which by the way was no longer enough. So they battered and stormed the gates, set out for others’ lands, weapons in their hands and plunder in their heart. Scattered to the four winds, they ripped apart. The Earth buckled beneath their feet threw mountains, ranges of mountains in their way, rivers and lakes and oceans, hoping to stay the slaughter But they built ships and crossed the water without a thought or pause their ears shrunken, their mouths stretched wide, their jaws, devoured the land and anyone who dared stand against them. Then In revenge for Earth’s resistance they blasted the rock, lay concrete scars across her face, cut tunnels deep into her body to stake their claim to what lay beneath her green and fragrant crust. With a lust that cannot be filled, Still they mawl and mine, they clear and fell and out of the Eden they were gifted they raise bright and shining gateways into Hell Two modern Towers of Babble Till jets stolen by others of their kind reduced the whole to rubble: The bright and shining city on a free-trade hill crumbling from within, imploding from the heat of burning fuel a weapon unforeseen, but of their own making-- The cedars grow silent, hold Their breath, as if the mere thought of fire brings the threat of violent death too near. I, for one, am more than grateful to return, to fill my lungs with fresh air and the smell of pine and other fragrances to my untutored senses undefined. At last They breathe again Listen, listen well, Here, here is the gateway to all that your mothers and your fathers threw aside when they plunged blindly into the world creating Hell refusing to be guided by anything but their rights and greed. Take heed, take heed, They warn. You will not avoid the coming storm. And what is more you may not survive it.
The original poem ended here, in uncertainty. It is an uncomfortable ending.
Later an Epilogue came to me:
Epilogue The wind sweeps in from the West, the sun comes out, An unseen bird picks up the threads of the refrain: You will not avoid the coming storm. But While nothing is guaranteed, perhaps from this sacred circle Eden may once again be born. (It is good. We are here. We are together, we are relations. It is good.)
Perhaps these words came to me because I am uneasy with such an uncertain, even despairing, ending. Perhaps because I do believe that despair is not the final word.
Or perhaps it is my prayer for what will be. Yes, that’s it: It is my prayer that we will open our eyes and hearts before we destroy it all.