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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

Alison Townsend

Northern Red Oak: Mercy

Lightning unzipped her once, blazing down her bark

soaked black with rain. It tore into her, just like that,


blasting her open to the shock of light with its burning

touch, the way a boy once entered me. A tree’s sapwood


explodes when struck by a bolt, no choice but to stand still,

while the charge travels to earth, electricity absorbed in ways


I do not understand. I lay still, too, when it happened to me,

like a girl in a folk tale, stunned by what I had no name for.


Everything was quiet afterwards. The rain pelted down

on the tree and me, all our secrets showing, her reddish bark


peeled back by fire, my flowered panties torn. The scar left

by it remains on the tree, neat black seam where her bark


inched slowly together, closing over the shredded pink wood,

like a body shutting a door. The strike might have broken her,


as it broke me for a time. But the oak didn’t die, her sap scalded

within. She held on, standing tall at the bottom of the hill, roots


anchoring her to this place. I stayed upright, too, my scar

invisible, the psyche’s gut stitches cinched tight within. An oak


tree isn’t a woman. I am not an oak. I hesitate to braid our stories

together, not wanting to impose mine on hers. But what I love


most about the tree’s wound is the place where she could not

seal herself completely shut. The wood there is white and smooth


as satin, the black slit splitting, fan-shaped, alluvial, down her trunk

to the plush delta of moss at her roots. It teaches me something,


broken beauty from which she re-grew, in this oak savanna—

vanishing ecosystem we slowly “restore”—where trees talk


to one another through their roots and I sit at her base, the cool,

blue hands of rain watering our lives in ways I never imagined.

Northern Red Oak: A Book of Hours

There are no pages in her book of prayers, only a psalm

of green leaves whose language cannot be spoken,


though I have known it since I was a girl, the swish

of one sharply pointed leaf blown against another


beneath the wind’s cool breath unique, each one

its own kind of music. Then all together at once,


the rustle of wind in leaves like surf rising and falling.

The tree and I breathe together, me in my striped lawn


chair, she in her furrowed bark—her great trunk and limbs

too high for me to climb—her moss-furred roots


like stones or sleeping animals, her crown of leaves,

shiny on one side, matte on the other. There’s a word


for the sound of wind in trees, a friend tells me. I love

the idea of such a thing. But it doesn’t capture late summer,


the spicy scent of goldenrod floating down the hill, the season

turning, and the hours of daylight and darkness my red oak’s


only clock. It does not describe her leaves, leathery-green this

late in the year, insect-eaten in places, the bitten spots tattered


as lace. I reach for more, examining them for all the things

the Wisconsin survey map, circa 1830, cannot tell me.


The oak was a sapling then, taking hold on the west edge

of this drumlin, savanna where she and I both live now,


her roots finding their way toward her kin, their silent

conversations about sun-drought-rain-snow traveling through


the rich, black earth. The surveyors passed close with their

compasses and measuring chains, just on the other side


of the barbed wire fence that once kept our farmer-neighbor’s

Holsteins in and now divides our four acres from his soybeans


and Round-Up Ready corn. The tree watched it all, especially

the Ho-Chunk women gathering acorns before those men came—


grandmothers, mothers, girls laughing, wiping sweat away,

smoothing their blue-black hair, the savanna slowly changing,


the shifting green-gold understory of big bluestem grazed

down, honeysuckle and multi-flora rose creeping in.


She watches me, standing beside her, my fingers trying to read

the Braille of her bark, its ridges and valleys, her body a map


because of her age and how she anchors me here, on this hill

in the middle of the country where I never wanted to be,


my sixty-some years a third of hers, not translatable in tree time.

How is it she knows everything, even about my mother


who died when I was young? Remember, the tree whispers,

how much she loved drawing trees, especially oaks,


her hand flicking over the page, and how you tried to copy

whatever she did. Come, rest your sadness against mine. Lean


your back to the rings in my wood until you hear my slow

heartbeat. Listen to the sound of wind in my leaves.


Alison Townsend is the author of a memoir-in-essays, The Green Hour: A Natural History of Home (a PEN America Finalist 2023; Wisconsin Writers Award Finalist 2023); two books of poetry, Persephone in America (Crab Orchard Poetry prize) and The Blue Dress; and a collection of short prose, The Persistence of Rivers (Jeanne Leiby Nonfiction Prize, Florida Review/Burrow Press). Her poetry and nonfiction appear in numerous journals, such as Blackbird, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Parabola, and Under the Sun, and have been recognized in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Essays 2020. Her many awards include the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chancellor’s Regional Literary Award (for contributions to Upper Midwest literature) and the 2020 Rattle Poetry Prize, as well as residencies at Hedgebrook, VCCA, and other colonies. She is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and lives in the farm country outside Madison.

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