There are trees in every direction I look where I live, and we’re very proud of them. We have dubbed ourselves the Evergreen State. Seattle bears the name Emerald City the way Adam means earth. The crowning glory of the Pacific Northwest encrusts its landscape unlike any other living thing (and we’re famous for octopi and Sasquatch, too—pretty stiff competition). Trees gather in neighborhoods and on hillsides and hold congress on the peninsula.
My friend, Jake, and I took a daytrip last fall to the Olympic National Forest on the Washington peninsula, which contains one of the largest temperate rain forests in the States, the Hoh. We went because he wanted photos of the trees—sage, tufted Northwest trees—in a confederacy of old growth. He was planning a tattoo on his ribs, something mossy and majestic.
I have another friend tattooing the State of Washington to his shoulder, with an evergreen at its heart. I have a tattoo idea, too: a line from my favorite poem, “Thanks,” by W.S. Merwin, in his 1988 volume, The Rain in the Trees, to unfurl below my left collarbone: “with our mouths full of food to look at the sky / and say thank you.”
I’m unconvinced there is any surprise that we might all have tree tattoos, in one fashion or another. Northwest troubadour Brandi Carlile sings,
Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods?
Everything there feels just as it should.
You’re part of a life there, part of something good
If you’ve ever wandered lonely through the woods. (“Have You Ever”)
Not to moralize the natural order of things, Carlile, like God and everyone after, declares the trees good, meaning they are wholesome and complete. Hugging a tree doesn’t seem all that strange when you stop to contemplate their excellence, when you pause to listen to what they whisper between silence and rain.
Like many writers I know, I keep a taboo list. Nothing too long or formal, this is simply a list of words I must not write—at least at first, when beginning a new piece. Often they are ones I have worn to pieces, like a favorite shirt or lucky underpants. Trees are there on my taboo list right now; as it happens, so is rain—just until I get some new work under my belt after Contingency Plans. It’s a way of pushing myself toward growth, toward deeper, more colorful, more dynamic writing.
What Jake and I found in the forest poured the colors of sunset around like a cranberry bog. Instead of a ruddy autumnal cloud hung above us as we had hoped, leaves carpeted the forest floor. Equinox had long passed and the trees shed their burdens as they pressed deeper into the darkness, toward solstice.
Jake took a photo or two, but we spent most of the afternoon in contemplative silence, as though tattooing the stillness to our inmost being so we might wear its natural stability back into the city. When we returned to Jake’s truck, he shrugged. He’d return another day, in the spring, perhaps, for more photos, the same way I anticipate the day I again raise my pen to the forest canopy, and say thank you.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In June we’ll be exploring the theme Trees.