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The Afterlives of Trees

July 31st, 2012 at 10:18 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:


On a wooden porch deck at Lake Wabaunsee, I sat in the shade of burr oaks and locusts, redbuds and hackberry trees.

The canopy of leaves, a lake breeze, and a lack of concrete made this place feel about 20 degrees cooler than in the city of Emporia. And when the temperature is over 100, that’s a nice break.

Dave and I spent a weekend in a borrowed cabin at the lake. It was good to get away, to see water through the back door, to simply be out in nature on a forested hill along with the poison ivy and the spiders and the squirrels.

This cabin was built at the top of a steep slope and the high deck gave me a new perspective on trees. Looking straight out, my eyes hit the nearby trunks at about 15 feet above their base. As the wind pushed its way through the timber, I was surprised to see just how easily those trunks swayed with even a light breeze.

While outside enjoying the cooler air, on my lap was the perfect book of poetry for the setting: “The Afterlives of Trees” by Kansas writer Wyatt Townley. In June, it was selected as a 2012 Kansas Notable Book.

I purchased it last summer when I met the author, and so I’ve already read the book and loved it. But poetry is meant to be read over and over, and each time you read a poem, you’re a different person, you come at it from a different place of understanding.

Reading Townley’s collection while sitting in the woods was a bonus, because I was now in the natural habitat of these poems.

Not all of the pieces in her book are about trees, but many of them touch on the subject in one way or another. For Townley, the woods often become words; there’s a progression from trees to wood to paper to poetry.

Trees show up in her poems as firewood, as an antique desk, as splinters in her high school bleachers. A scarf left on a previous outing appears to be a bookmark in the woods.

In the mornings at the lake, I took her book outside to read. I watched squirrels take courageous leaps from limb to limb, and play tag with each other, around and up, circling trees like the stripe on a straw. In the evenings I read more poems as cicadas got in tune for their twilight orchestra.

On that deck, I read Townley’s poems about trees, her poems about connection, about love, about life and death. I fell into her circle of gravity and I wanted to stay there.

She uses great imagery and great lines, lines that I wish I had written. Her poem “How It Is,” begins like this: “The sun drags worlds behind it/ planets at its ankles.”

To open “Centering the House,” she writes, “All night Kansas/ the lungs of the continent/ takes a sip of the galaxy.”

And in “Abyss,” I love this image: “In the chasm of the closet/ your shoes hold the shape/ of every step we took.” And, “the bed a black hole/ you disappeared through.”

Last summer when I met the willowy Wyatt Townley, I felt an aura of serenity around her. So when I read this collection, I was not surprised to find calm wisdom and depth within her words.

While a number of her poems mention a loss of some kind, they are also laced with a peaceful acceptance of what is, and a sense that the end is never really the end. The book is about change, about growth, about going deeper into our own understanding, going deeper into the unseen world, and going there without fear.

We read about trees that have been transformed either by time or by intervention, and we see how time and intervention transforms us all.

“The Afterlives of Trees” is Wyatt Townley’s third book of poetry. It was published by Woodley Press at Washburn University, and is available at Emporia’s Town Crier Book Store.

For more about Townley and her books, visit her website: www.wyatttownley.com.

Copyright 2012 ~ Cheryl Unruh

columns, Kansans, nature, other people's stuff, writing

  1. Kris
    July 31st, 2012 at 12:57 | #1

    This book is beyond a wish list. Must have it. Thank you so much. Trees are some of my best friends, too. I’m glad you have a place to enjoy them.

  2. heineken160
    July 31st, 2012 at 23:22 | #2

    “I watched squirrels take courageous leaps from limb to limb, and play tag with each other, around and up, circling trees like the stripe on a straw. In the evenings I read more poems as cicadas got in tune for their twilight orchestra.” Classic Cheryl.

  3. J.P.
    August 3rd, 2012 at 10:45 | #3

    It might be possible to get a more intense experience while being in the right place with the connecting reading.
    Think all of us to have a relationship to all kinds of wooden things along the path of our lifes.
    I do like the different forms of branches bleached, soaked and broken by the sea.