The Red Cedars

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.

Published by kbryantshipp

Preacher woman, musician, lover of justice

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