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Comments (6) Posted 01.07.09 | PERMALINK | PRINT

W.S. Merwin

"Unchopping A Tree"



Untitled, 1985. Originally published by Poetry. Reprinted courtesy of the artist, Milton Glaser

Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nests that have been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places. It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed or mutilated. If the fall was carefully and correctly planned, the chances of anything of the kind happening will have been reduced. Again, much depends upon the size, age, shape, and species of the tree. Still, you will be lucky if you can get through this stages without having to use machinery. Even in the best of circumstances it is a labor that will make you wish often that you had won the favor of the universe of ants, the empire of mice, or at least a local tribe of squirrels, and could enlist their labors and their talents. But no, they leave you to it. They have learned, with time. This is men's work. 

It goes without saying that if the tree was hollow in whole or in part, and contained old nests of bird or mammal or insect, or hoards of nuts or such structures as wasps or bees build for their survival, the contents will have to repaired where necessary, and reassembled, insofar as possible, in their original order, including the shells of nuts already opened. With spider's webs you must simply do the best you can. We do not have the spider's weaving equipment, nor any substitute for the leaf's living bond with its point of attachment and nourishment. It is even harder to simulate the latter when the leaves have once become dry — as they are bound to do, for this is not the labor of a moment. Also it hardly needs saying that this the time fro repairing any neighboring trees or bushes or other growth that might have been damaged by the fall. The same rules apply. Where neighboring trees were of the same species it is difficult not to waste time conveying a detached leaf back to the wrong tree. Practice, practice. Put your hope in that.

Now the tackle must be put into place, or the scaffolding, depending on the surroundings and the dimension of the tree. It is ticklish work. Almost always it involves, in itself, further damage to the area, which will have to be corrected later. But, as you've heard, it can't be helped. And care now is likely to save you considerable trouble later. Be careful to grind nothing into the ground.

At last the time comes for the erecting of the trunk. By now it will scarcely be necessary to remind you of the delicacy of this huge skeleton. Every motion of the tackle, every slightly upward heave of the trunk, the branches, their elaborately reassembled panoply of leaves (now dead) will draw from you an involuntary gasp. You will watch for a lead or a twig to be snapped off yet again. You will listen for the nuts to shift in the hollow limb and you will hear whether they are indeed falling into place or are spilling in disorder — in which case, or in the event of anything else of the kind — operations will have to cease, of course, while you correct the matter. The raising itself is no small enterprise, from the moment when the chains tighten around the old bandages until the boles hands vertical above the stump, splinter above splinter. How the final straightening of the splinters themselves can take place (the preliminary work is best done while the wood is still green and soft, but at times when the splinters are not badly twisted most of the straightening is left until now, when the torn ends are face to face with each other). When the splinters are perfectly complementary the appropriate fixative is applied. Again we have no duplicate of the original substance. Ours is extremely strong, but it is rigid. It is limited to surfaces, and there is no play in it. However the core is not the part of the trunk that conducted life from the roots up to the branches and back again. It was relatively inert. The fixative for this part is not the same as the one for the outer layers and the bark, and if either of these is involved in the splintered sections they must receive applications of the appropriate adhesives. Apart from being incorrect and probably ineffective, the core fixative would leave a scar on the bark.

When all is ready the splintered trunk is lowered onto the splinters of the stump. This, one might say, is only the skeleton of the resurrection. Now the chips must be gathered, and the sawdust, and returned to their former positions. The fixative for the wood layers will be applied to chips and sawdust consisting only of wood. Chips and sawdust consisting of several substances will receive applications of the correct adhesives. It is as well, where possible, to shelter the materials from the elements while working. Weathering makes it harder to identify the smaller fragments. Bark sawdust in particular the earth lays claim to very quickly. You must find our own way of coping with this problems. There is a certain beauty, you will notice at moments, in the patterns of the chips as they are fitted back into place. You will wonder to what extent it should be described as natural, to what extent man-made. It will lead you on to speculations about the parentage of beauty itself, to which you will return.

The adhesive for the chips is translucent, and not so rigid as that for splinters. That for the bark and its subcutaneous layers if transparent and runs into the fibers on either side, partially dissolving them into each other. It does not set the sap flowing again but it does pay a kind of tribute to the preoccupations of the ancient thoroughfares. You could not roll an egg over the joints but some of the mine-shafts would still be passable, no doubt. For the first exploring insect who raises its head in the tight echoless passages. The day comes when it is all restored, even to the moss (now dead) over the wound. You will sleep badly, thinking of the removal of the scaffolding that must begin the next morning. How you will hope for sun and a still day!

The removal of the scaffolding or tackle is not a dangerous, perhaps, to the surroundings, as its installation, but it presents problems. It should be taken from the spot piece by piece as it is detached, and stored at a distance. You have come to accept it there, around the tree. The sky begins to look naked as the chains and struts one by one vacate their positions. Finally the moment arrives when the last sustaining piece is removed and the tree stands again on its own. It is as though its weight for a moment stood on your heart. You listen for a thud of settlement, a warning creak deep in the intricate joinery. You cannot believe it will hold. How like something dreamed it is, standing there all by itself. How long will it stand there now? The first breeze that touches its dead leaves all seems to flow into your mouth. You are afraid the motion of the clouds will be enough to push to over. What more can you do? What more can you do?

But there is nothing more you can do.

Others are waiting.

Everything is going to have to be put back.


Copyright © 1994 by W.S. Merwin, reprinted with permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.
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Comments (6)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

A most delightful read!
Rick Fox
02.13.09 at 09:59

wow.. that makes me sad..
andrea
02.13.09 at 05:18

Ahhh. Mr. Merwin. The mechanics of putting together a thing of love. I remember him translating Neruda's poetry with romanticism. Funny thing is I have a book by Ken Krabbenhoft translating the same Neruda's poetry rather mechanically.

I just mention it because of the coincidence in those two last names hanging on the back end of a humpty dumpty, but neither last name being a family name. Pure coincidence.

I would suggest in this case, the only thing to do is plant a forest from the nut.
nancy
02.17.09 at 06:09

Beautiful. The thoughtful of tone the instructions is painful and fills me with regret as the task of undoing damage is, at best, simultaneously monumental and inferior in its results. The sensitive steps for righting the tree, caring for its surround space, and considering the unintended consequences of reparations is the kind of consciousness that would have prevented the tree from being cut down in the first place. There really is no unchopping, only the thoughtfulness and care to not do so in the first place.

The language of the piece is so simple. There is no outrage or accusation, only the description of something impossible. The call for action comes from within the reader. At least that was my experience. My heart is opened and I feel a real conviction to be kind today, to not do damage.

The last few lines describing the repaired upright tree are lovely:
“It is as though its weight for a moment stood on your heart. (I started crying here.) You listen for a thud of settlement, a warning creak deep in the intricate joinery. You cannot believe it will hold. How like something dreamed it is, standing there all by itself.”
Why haven’t I looked at a tree with this sort of wonder before?

Thank you.
Miriam Martincic
02.23.09 at 12:26

Do you know where this poem originally appeared?
Marc Hummel
03.05.09 at 08:37

For those interested, I've answered my own question: "Unchopping" first appeared in "the Miner's Pale Children."

http://www.amazon.com/Miners-Pale-Children-W-S-Merwin/dp/B001F3IAT4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1239897334&sr=8-1
Marc Hummel
04.16.09 at 11:56


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

W. S. Merwin, a former poet laureate, has written over fifty books of poems, translations, and prose. "The New Song" is from Moon Before Morning, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in February. He has been awarded most of the major prizes in American poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the Tanning Prize for Mastery in the Art of Poetry.

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