"Yet when I consider how, still a man of the world, In belt and cap I scurry through dirt and dust, From time to time my heart twinges with shame, That I am not fit to be master of my pines!" -Bai Juyi,"The Pine Trees in the Courtyard" Crack, crack, crack firecracker sounds start, swell, pass straight through the clapboard walls, tin roof of my house, startle me off the couch. I stand, scared like a deer in my living room, until I catch a falling sight out the window, hear the crash, reverberant pound of heavy body. How it missed my steel wellhead set away from the house under the hundred-foot pine is the miracle, this scaffold branch from eighty feet above, whose big rough ovals of bark I finger-trace as I stare up to where its torn arm is jagged, leaning, against a juvenile oak, having slid down it, tearing off summer green branches. The large, oval-barked lateral branches hit first, snapped pine frond tassels into a broken teepee pushed to ground on both sides of the antique '40s wellhead I depend on for water, leaving a streak the color of baby food down the dark bark of the understory young oak that bends away from the 500 pounds of broken pine it suddenly supports. Now, the main mast of the limb points up, a long, jagged edge of its breaking like a crooked finger, like an instruction, "look up." It is obvious the limb was overcome by oppressors, the woody vines I haven't cut in years, on this or any other of my twenty seven virgin pines. Aged, they were here when William Bartram visited my island. I know this: because Irma pushed my twenty-eighth over the road to split a neighbor's live oak. When crane and chainsaw tolled against their damaged bodies, I kept slices of cross-sections to finger the rings, mourning both losses. Now, vines heavy with stem-top leaves hang from broken branch to ground like a hippie-curtain, hiding the wellhead. I realize other big limbs have fallen and I've just let them lie, time-shares for insects, spiders, turkey-tail fungus, an occasional drumming woodpecker. Today this pine has made me look up. At the ground I walk, the vines are beautiful, the way they twist and gnarl from soil to tree, but they are in the tree crowns now, soaking up too much sun energy. Shaken like the ground by this that could have cracked the wellhead, chagrined and apologetic, I get clippers and hacksaw and start around the tree. In the wet humid heat, shirt quickly stuck to back, a few trees will be all for today. Even if he never pressed an unglamorous pine needle into his notebook, Bartram would choose glorious pines over vines too. A pine never cuts xylem water from its needles. It knows it needs them to thrive. As I saw and clip, for a moment I put cheek on bark, apologize, thank tree and branch for the hair's breadth sparing in the snap, pitch, and plunge, imagine the gift of spraying water, bare feet on cool wet tub porcelain, even though I have been an unfit master of my pines.
Poem by Steven Croft
Steven Croft lives on a barrier island off the coast of Georgia on a property lush with vegetation. He is the author of New World Poems (Alien Buddha Press, 2020). His poems have appeared in Willawaw Journal, San Pedro River Review, The New Verse News, North of Oxford, Tiny Seed Literary Journal, Soul-Lit, and other places, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.