They get active in evening, my friend says,
and tuck inside if it rains. It isn’t raining, but the air
is cool as emeralds. We stand in our down coats,
pointing our binoculars at the broken-off,
jagged slopes atop the giant ruin that is the tree.
“Dear Outside World,” one of my students writes,
“all I can see from my window are the animals
in my backyard and the bushes that form a periphery.
I think this might be all you are for now.”
An owlet risks the open and stares myopically.
Its parents enter the cloud cover above the stream.
To camouflage, to impersonate, both perpetuate
a fraud—one hides, one wears the guise of another—
the gray bark for minutes I would swear is the bird
or the bird watching us, still as wood can be.
I, too, am waiting at the threshold as my mother leaves
the earth, her presence already fading from view.
Her hands can no longer grip her spoon, her syringe.
But for whom is the world not dangerous?
My friend says he spent two hours on his stoop
in the dark, while the parents delivered countless voles
and once a snake. Three toes facing forward,
a fourth talon that can pivot back, the owlet’s clutch
is already big as its head. If we can imagine
the worst beforehand, will it be easier when it comes?
My mother is feeling better. Will she live?
A fox pads into the field beyond us as if it believed
that we can’t see it over the stems of last year’s grass.
The Mother Tree
The question the forest researcher was obsessed with
is whether the dying Mother Tree, facing an uncertain future,
can transfer her remaining resources to her young.
My face was next to hers on the pillow when my mother
took her last breath. Grief shoots through my body,
from my throat down to my feet. Vascular, when I let myself
remember this. But it is trees I want to write about,
their tangible fungal cords, how they can recognize their kin,
and help accordingly, favoring them with carbon,
nitrogen, and water, and, if they are strong, sharing what is
left with other species. And it is the lesser scaups
that I want to write about, on the shallow, algae-filled river,
how they scurried in front of our canoe because
the young could not yet fly, some tiny as the newest kitten,
all panicking at our approach, a few paddling past us
in the wrong direction. “Gulls are assholes,” said my friend,
as we watched them arrive and immediately begin
dive-bombing the ducklings. Such genius, how they huddled,
then dove underwater each time the gulls swooped low,
bobbing up where and when no one expected them.
Later, a biologist tells me gulls will do this until the babies
are so exhausted they give up, floating on the water like,
well, like sitting ducks, that the gull is their primary predator.
My mother said that she hoped, if there was a heaven,
it would be filled with love, quickly clarifying that she meant
without the usual lust and violence. The forest researcher,
diagnosed with breast cancer, hoped to leave something
to her daughters. The scaups always know who goes astray.
Melissa Kwasny is the author of seven books of poetry, including the forthcoming The Cloud Path (Milkweed Editions) and Where Outside the Body is the Soul Today (Pacific Northwest Poetry Series, University of Washington Press), as well as a collection of essays, Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision. Her first full-length nonfiction book, Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear, explores the cultural, labor, and environmental histories of clothing materials provided by animals. She is also the editor of two anthologies: I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poets in Defense of Global Human Rights and Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950. She was Montana Poet Laureate from 2019-2021, a position she shared with M.L. Smoker.