It has been more than thirty concentric rings ago, but I remember the phrase very clearly.
One of my professors, during an annual evaluation, offered a cleverly thesauric observation about my youthful demeanor and collegiate presence: “[he] tends to be wooden.” Even allowing for my customary quiet nature, youthful immaturity, and a somewhat tamped-down personality, this remark turned out to be more hurtful than I expect the professor meant it to be.
I did not help my own cause when, rather than seeking him out and engaging in a constructive dialogue, instead I bleated my discomfort to friends and classmates. I was dismayed that this gentle whine did not eliminate the sting, but only splintered it among my peers. For quite some time after, I was a locus of merriment, acquiring various nicknames in the process. I was not expecting it (self-awareness was not a strength in those days), so a tree falling in my forest did, in fact, make a sound. I’d been planked.*
*Do you see what I did there?
Now comes Brian Culhane’s poem, “The Stoic’s Pine,” published in the current issue of Southwest Review and available via the awesome Poetry Daily website. As a solid half-dozen six-line stanzas, this is a tall and stately work that blends together poet and tree and book in an enlightening manner:
The white pine’s belief in ancient virtue
Stems from one hot serendipitous noon
You took M. Aurelius outside for hours,
Reading on a bed of pine needles; soon
You’d fallen into the just sleep of the True,
And could not see the pine use all its powers
To tap the Meditations with siphoning root
Until, by capillary action, it filled its head
With worthy intentions: …
How many teachers would wish their students’ minds fill so readily with content? How delightful a transfer of data that would be! Information, though, is not enough; an abundance of purposeful reflection is in order.
We need reminding that a tree moves in more than one direction — aloft, yes, reaching into the heavens. but also reaching down, sinking deep roots as foundation, for nourishment. (How like that could we be?) A tree cannot but be aware of its presence in place. And this particular white pine, steeped now in Stoic principles, reflects on its great fortune and learns many lessons about the cyclical nature of life and the strength inherent in bearing up under adversity of all sorts (“Ice storms, gnawing beetles, and human young / (Boys’ pocket knives probe and torture bark)”).
Culhane’s rhyming scheme is as pleasantly rough as bark; his sentences elegant:
Had it to face chainsaw and be rendered board,
While another might make a mournful sound,
A soughing in wind, this pine, its last minute begun,
Would recall that serene equipoise and calm
An emperor once praised as the surest sign
Of the settled soul; …
I am humbled with the knowledge that trees are among the oldest (and the tallest) of all living organisms on earth. Millennia before classical philosophers, trees were already the ancients. They have time enough to add rings and deepen thought and come to know well “the quietus life moves toward.” We would do well to read Marcus Aurelius. We would benefit, too, from sitting with a tree, falling asleep even — drawing up wisdom and strength from the world without and the world within. Remaining in place, how we would move forward — how we would!
Tends to be wooden? Nay, tries to be.
Brian Culhane is the author of The King’s Question: Poems — winner, in 2007, of the Emily Dickinson First Book Award from the Poetry Foundation. He is a teacher of English and film studies at Lakeside School in Seattle.