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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Nathan Manley


Sugar Beet

Beta vulgaris vulgaris [1]

 

Planetscape blanched to a chemical peel.

Furrow on furrow, tractor tread cracking

the flatland through to the weed-lipped progress

of Box Elder Creek, dribbling distantly:

a sound of human speech alive in it.

 

May, and the green of my grandmother’s grass,

a relief on the landscape. Her farmhouse

squat, hunkered like a wounded stag—vestige

Odocoileus virginianus

of the Age of Asbestos, of turquoise

and television; an old radial

pitched on the garret, spoke-sharp and rusting

there, hung like a weird horn from the forehead

of the twentieth century, a fool.

 

The house, the stable in its ricket lean,

stands empty. Someone’s curtained up the glass—

thistles in the window box, paint flaking

Cirsium canescens

down her door. Grandmother’s gone to her bliss:

how far, I wonder, from these people, hers,

whom she could not bear to love?

It’s years since

we pilgrimed a box of my mother’s ash

and chalked the rotten earth with turning it

here. I’d occasion then, asked: what should rise

at judgment, steeped in so much bitterness?

What should rise from the moon-fine dust, torn up

through some hole in the world, wry and blinking

to brush glyphosate crystal like dried salt

from the corners of its eyes?

What must rise?

 

By June, wrinkled leaves like so many hands

of beets will spring, gracious and fluttering

with inscrutable gesture, bulbs plumping

to bob, come harvest, in a sea of sweet:

 

this thing, this troubled marvel of our time

will rise a marvel, and sweetly anyhow.


[1] The industrial manufacture of beet sugar, an innovation of German chemists in the late 18th century, was first established in France at the behest of Napoleon following the English continental blockade of the Napoleonic wars, which precluded importation of cane sugar from the tropics to his nascent empire. Alongside four imperial beet sugar factories, Napoleon also chartered a number of technical schools for the training of cultivators and producers. On the heels of the first profitable beet-sugar operation in North America, established in Alvarado, California toward the close of the 19th century, the sugar-beet industry gained a foothold in the American West. By the middle of the 20th century, beet cultivation occupied even the meager resources of our family farm in Weld County, Colorado, where beets are still grown, season to season.


Quaking Aspen/Orange Cap Bolete

Populus tremuloides/Leccinum insigne [2]

 

She’d wet the tendrils of a foundling thirst

and pattern-knit each phantom synapse dimmed

to dirt, to darks of dreamless Mastodon,

— Mammut americanum

as, purling up the rot-swept sockets, she,

now eldest of a thousand sisters, split,

twinning out her virid tresses—past grief

grieving at the Pleistocene’s mouth. The Age

of Winter wasted toward an ocean,

a black vastness after landscape, a drum.

A comely aspen wood meanwhile began.

Selfsame sprung sister, sister, and sister.

At each insistent rise,

white-tongued fungus:

fibrillose, broad-capped, dullish and gill-girt,

– (10-15cm), convex to planoconvex

wide stipe blushing like a wine-bruised carpet.

– (2-2.5 cm at apex), clavate, solid

Mars to Prout’s brown in youth, velutinous;

late life, pileus tawny to russet.

Spores of like hue. Few to gregarious

– amber, ochraceous in Melzer’s reagent

in litterfall, aspen trash. Mild to taste

and tender-fleshed. Twining mycorrhizal:

– read: ecto

an easy, mutual thing—root music.

 

Down centuries of sisters, sweetly, she

struck fast and sang, the bubbling boletes come,

loosed of winter’s anchorage, a-bob, both

born of water, blessed of rot—shriveled soon

to soul-stuff, death-tethered specimens pruned

in a formaldehyde of borrowed words:

 

old codes swimming yet the cell’s soft cosmos

 

for all the rainfall’s sweet religion, gone.

 

She will go, too, the sisterhood in tow—

and I, with springtime and the mammoth, I

— Mammuthus columbi

who rummaged for a touch of lasting life,

prized of her native continuity,

of the bone-quiet communion of things;

divined in the glass-eyed microscope, I,

who inked this offering—who tongued the skull

for sheltering thought, sciences for sake of faith.


[2] In the arid American West, where climatic conditions have remained hostile to the establishment of aspen seedlings since the last glaciation, aspen often propagate by suckering—a process by which new trees are generated asexually from a network of buried roots; because an entire stand of aspen may comprise a single genetic individual, as old stems perish and new stems spring, the organism may enjoy a longevity of thousands of years. Aspen benefit from a host of mycorrhizal fungi species (among these, leccinum insigne). As the mycelium of an ectomycorrhizal fungus extends through the soil, it forms a mutualistic, extracellular association with the root systems of nearby trees, facilitating the trees’ uptake of phosphorous and nitrogen while feeding on plant carbohydrates, which it converts to fungal sugars.

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Nathan Manley is a writer and erstwhile English teacher from Loveland, Colorado. He is the author of two chapbooks, Numina Loci (Mighty Rogue Press, 2018) and Ecology of the Afterlife (Split Rock Press, 2021). Recent poems and Latin translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Portland Review, Natural Bridge, Spillway, Puerto del Sol, Crab Creek Review, THINK and others. His work has been nominated for Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize. You can find his writing and instrumental music on his website.

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