Following Pine

Tony Harrison

When a plumber glues some lengths of PVC
that pipe our cold spring water from its source,
or a carpenter fits porch-posts, and they see,
from below or from above, the heartwood floors
made from virgin lumber, such men say,
as if they’d taught each other the same line:
Boards like them boards don’t exist today!
then maybe add: Now everything’s new pine.

Though the house is in a scant surviving wood
that has black walnut, hackberry, pecan
and moss-festooned live-oaks that have withstood
centuries more of bad news than a man,
sometimes we can drive an hour or more
and see nothing but dense pine trees on both sides
and no glimpse of the timber for such floors
from virgin forest laid for virgin brides.

The feller/buncher and delimber groans,
grappling the grovelling pines, and dozing flat
a whole stand to a mess of stumps and stones
like some Goliath gorged on them, then shat
what was no use to him back on the land.
The sun and moon are sharing the same sky
as we drive by this totally depleted stand
marked down for GP planks and layer-peeled ply.

We’d set off early but shrill loggers’ saws
were already shrieking in the stands of pines.
Fresh-felled, lopped slash pine tree trunks in their scores

were being bull-dozed into ordered lines
waiting for the trucks in long convoy.
The trimmed off branches were already burning.
The quiet early road we’d wanted to enjoy
we did, but met the timber trucks returning.

Our early start was so that we could get
the trees we’d gone to buy into the ground,
watered and well-mulched, before sunset
and not be digging in the dark with snakes around.
So with fig trees, vines, and apples in the back,
wilting and losing some ‘Tree Garden’ sheen,
we see on the road ahead a sky half black
and half as brilliantly blue as it had been.

The fast track was all wet, the crawler lane,
we’d driven in most of the morning, dry.
The west side was in sun, the east in rain.
The east had black, the west had bright blue sky.
Armadillo blood, on one side,’s washed away,
and, on the other, further on, sun-dried,
according as the car-crushed creature lay
on the highway’s wet or sunny side.

Killed by traffic flowing through the night,
armadillos, rats, snake, dog, racoon,
dead on both road verges, left and right,
are scavenged on and half-decayed by noon,
and browsed over with hummed hubbub by blowfly

like loud necklaces, beads gone berserk,
that, whatever the day’s weather, wet or dry,
stay a high gloss green and do their work.

And as we accelerated hard and overtook,
moving on the rain side as we did,
first one and then another timber truck,
the sudden wet road made me scared we’d skid.
My heart leaped instantly into my mouth
till we seemed safe between two loads of pine,
part of the convoy travelling due South
with east lane raining, and west side fine.

Was it the danger that made me hold my breath,
the quick injection of adrenalin,
the vision of our simultaneous death
in the crushed Toyota we were riding in,
or the giant raindrops that were pelting
onto the windshield and shot through with sun,
that made it seem the two of us were melting
and in a radiant decay becoming one?

Good job with such visions going on
that you were driving and you kept your head,
or that sense of fleshly glory would be gone,
with the visionary who sensed it, and you, dead,
as dead as the armadillo, possum or racoon
killed by the night-time traffic and well
advanced into decay by afternoon
and already giving off a putrid smell.

At least the storm cleaned love-bugs off the car
and washed the windscreen glass so you could drive.
When they copulate in swarms you can’t see far.
They’d sooner fuck their brains out than survive.
They hit the car, embracing, and, squashed flat,
their twinned remains are merged into one mess.
Is it just this crushed canoodling gnat
that needs for its Nirvana Nothingness?

From then on we were well and truly stuck,
and anxious to get back to plant our trees,
behind the huge pine-loaded lumber truck,
its red flag flapping in the slipstream breeze.
Because the lashed lopped slash was newly cut
the pungency of pine filled all the air.
We have to drive with all the windows shut,
the smell of pine too powerful to bear.

Now quite impossible to overtake
the convoy crawls up Highway 26.
Your foot keeps hovering above the brake
behind future coffin lids and cocktail sticks.
Our impatience at the slowness of the road
was not repugnance at the smell of pine,
however pungent, but worry for our load
of apple, pear, and fig, and muscadine.

Pine’s the lingering perfume newly-weds
in just built homes smell off their panelling,
off squeaky floorboards, off their platform beds,
that cows smell when their rheumy nostrils sting
and tingle on electric pasture fences,
of the USA’s best-selling bathroom spray
spritzed against those stinks that shock the senses,
shit, decomposition and decay.

This is the smell in Walden that Thoreau’s
cabin-builder’s hands gave to his lunch,
the resinous pitch that prickled in his nose
whenever he took a sandwich out to munch,
and, maybe, thinking morosely as he chews
how woodlands mostly end up wooden goods,
the wrapping of his butties, week-old news,
was also nature once, and someone’s woods.

Even in pineless worlds his dream survives
though these dreams of independence are nightmares
where retiree DIYers save their lives
while everyone around them’s losing theirs.
Spacemen go one way, these pioneers
mole down into the earth to find a place
to weather out the days, weeks, even years
that may well, but for these, kill off our race.

Considering their fear it’s maybe kinder
when they burrow in the ground like gophers do
not to offer them the sobering reminder
that rattlesnakes use gopher burrows too.
However layered with rocks and earth the roof,
however stocked with freeze-drieds (praise the Lord!),
however broad the door, how bullet proof,
no matter how much water they have stored,

until the radiation count all-clear
broadcast (they don’t say how) on radio,
when they can, but cautiously, then reappear,
death got there before them, though they grow
by battery-powered Mazda lightbulb beams
alfalfa sprouts, damp blotting pads of cress,
while nations torn apart by common dreams
are united in a state of Nothingness.

Being neither newly weds nor retirees
today we bought five figs, a pear, a vine,
and still have some belief in planting trees
with lifespans more than three times yours and mine.
Most of my life I’ve wanted to believe
those words of Luther that I’ve half-endorsed
about planting an apple tree the very eve
of the Apocalypse, or the Holocaust.

Every time my bags of red goat leather
are lying labelled England in the hall
and we take our last stroll round the land together
whether it’s winter, summer, spring or fall,
there’s always one last job I find to do,
pruned branches that I need to burn,
one last load of needles left to strew –
it’s a way of guaranteeing my return.

A neighbour learns the skills they call ‘survival’
living wild off sabal palm and game
killed by various means, knife, bow or rifle,
even throttling; me, I’ve learned to name
and know the subtle differences between
what once was only ‘woods’, or was before
mere nameless leaves of slightly varied green
but is now, say, persimmon or possumhaw.

Who lives for the future, who for now?
What good’s the cigale’s way or the fourmi’s
if both end up as nothing anyhow
unless they look at life like Socrates
who wished, at the very end, to learn to play
a new air on his novice lyre. Why?
said his teacher, this is your last day.
To know it before I die, was the reply.

II

Chill, sterile, waterless, inert,
but full the moon illuminates the night
enough for us to dig the still warm dirt
and plant the trees we’ve brought home by its light.
That globe above so different from here,
where no one lives and nothing ever grows,
no soil, no moisture and no atmosphere
to culture kumquats in or grow a rose.

From that great plain of death, inert and chill,
light may rebound but life will never come.
Those so-called seas are sterile, dry and still,
Mare Serenitatis, Sinus Iridum.
And yet, I thought, and yet, where would we be
without these light beams bounced off that dead land,
without these ungrassed dunes and lifeless sea
shedding their pallor on my scooping hand?

Light from a surface so cold and so dead
was the one we planted our new fruit-trees by,
the one that casts its glow now on our bed,
the one I find reflected in your eye.
Is not extinction with its eerie light
the appropriate presider when one swears
to sustain each other through the world of night
we’ve both decided is ‘best born in pairs’?

We saw all that we needed by a light
beamed off a barrenness of pit and plain,
off the 69 Apollo landing-site
where planted flag and giant step remain.
That place, some men aspire to, discovers,
with light reflected from plains pocked with pits,
plantlife, a yellow house, a pair of lovers,
uniting in their love deep opposites.

This Earth, and this Earth’s sterile satellite
won’t always be, like life and death, apart
if Man’s destructive mind with Nature’s might
leaves the Earth a pitted lunar chart
with no one here to name her barren craters
after rainbows, or discoverers, or peace,
though there’ll be Peace when Earth’s worst agitators
find in final dissolution their release.

Despite barricaded bolt-holes deep below
it’s often said that what will come off best
once, step by step, we’ve reached All-Systems-Go,
of all life on this Earth’s the lowliest:
these bugs tonight like high-roast coffee beans
that fling themselves at flames and self-destruct,
that blue wasp juicing bugs like tangerines,
fat bucking locusts jockeyed on and sucked,

these trawling spiders that have rigged their nets
halfway between our porchlamps and the night,
their dawn webs threaded with dew jewelettes
and hauls of flies caught lurching for our light.
A blundering beetle with black laquered back
that dialled liquidation to the spider’s limb,
embalmed in abseil/bellpull’s a stored snack
swathed in white cerements of sticky scrim.

Phoning that zero got the spider quick.
Each leg’s in touch with 45 degrees
of laddered circle where the insects stick
on tacky wires their weaver walks with ease.
Even the love-bugs, randy and ridiculous,
coupling regardless of death close behind
could still be fucking after all of us
are merged in the molten mess made of Mankind.

Falling asleep to loud cicada chirrs,
to scuttling cockroach, crashing carapace,
the noises that I hear are our inheritors
who’ll know the Earth both B. and A. our race.
And underneath those floorboards of good heart
I think I hear the slither of a snake
and then the rodent prey the snake makes start.
Let’s forget about the world until we wake!

III

Each board of ‘tongue in groove’s’ scored by a line
I measure insect movements by from bed.
A spider crossing long since scentless pine
racks its nightcatch on a slender thread.
The blowfly’s hawsered body still looks wet
though all night it’s been suspended in the dry.
It spins round, flashing, in the spider’s net
with shredded cockroach wings and antennae.

I knew I’d wake today and find you gone
and look out of the window knowing where
you’d be so early, still with nothing on,
watering our new plants with drowsy care.
The night, already stripped of half its dark,
now with the rest sloughed off, ’s revealed as day,
and the sun already makes small rainbows arc
out of the hose’s nozzle drizzling spray.

Crunching the rusted needles that I strew
to stunt the weed growth on the paths we hacked
I come towards you and am naked too,
and, being naked, feel my nerves react
to the pliant give and snap of spider thread,
snagged on a nipple, sliding on my sweat,
pinged on a whisker, snapped against my head –
the night survivor loosened from the net.

Though impossible to hear I sense each ping
as of an instrument too tautly strung
with notes too high for human voice to sing
and, in any case, not heard if ever sung,
and maybe like that air of Socrates,
I hope he played at least once with some skill,
transposed beyond our ken into high keys
I can’t hear now, and know I never will.

For all that unseen threads break on my face,
for all these cordons of cobweb caress
I walk towards you and don’t change my pace
feeling each broken thread one stricture less
against my passage to the world of day.
I can only know the last one when it breaks.
You can’t see them ahead, and anyway,
I have to scan the ground for rattlesnakes.

I wonder as I walk still half awake
if the trees that baked a bit long in our boot
and we’d planted in the dark would ever take
and if we’d ever taste their hoped-for fruit.
I pass what’s become in 12-months gut-high pine
planted last summer in a long close row
as our few acres’ demarcation line
and I will what’s still a hedge to grow less slow,

and be tall enough to mask the present view
of you watering the saplings as you spray
rainbows at fig-trees planted 2-1-2
and both of us still nude at break of day.
A morning incense smokes off well-doused ground.
Everywhere you water rainbows shine.
This private haven that we two have found
might be the more so when enclosed with pine.