Leaves of Trees by Lee Schwartz
On 04/24/2015 | 1 Comments
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Editor’s note: We asked our contributors to respond to this spring-related prompt: Using the following phrase as a starting point write for 10 minutes without self-editing:

“Collapsing under a canopy of green…” (source: The Journal)


My town of Great Barrington, MA, has cut down all of its trees on Main Street. This is my Walt Whitman-esque response.
Leaves of Trees

I  loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

Walt Whitman
“Leaves of Grass”

The child asks, what is grass,
Whitman explains, it is the landscape
of our lives, there for everyone,
nature democratizing  beauty.
In a bed of grass for everyone,
not just for the poet but for the farmer,
the grocer, the lost and the gilded,
so the trees of our great town,
the Bradford pear, a conical shaped tree
offered bowers of white flowers in summer,
whirligigs of clouds in a giant parade,
the Norway Maples that grew to heights
of over 30 feet was one of the last
to lose its yellow pointy leaves in fall.

Trees shading us and showering us with
a glory given only by the heavens,
roots reaching down to soak up
water traveling miles under our town square
to link and hold our city, remembering
our fight for union and liberty in the Civil War;
we are the home of the first freed slave , dated 1876,
the Victory Monument stands eight feet tall,
at the entry to Town Hall.

Two years before the Revolutionary War, our town
was the first site of armed resistance against the Brits,
our heritage all linked to the main roadway,
Main Street, where all gather to stroll,
buy an ice cream, grab a coffee, a haircut,
mail a letter – all our needs met
on Main Street, the street The Smithsonian
named the best small town in America.
Think the trees had anything to do with that?
The arbor overhead, the clean smell in the wind,
the umbrellas of summer,
lover’s canopy and shopper’s  delight,
fanned and rejoicing in their beauty,
so when the town decides to mow all the
trees down, cut off every branch and twig,
every log and bark, it’s a massacre to all.

We are all being torn at the limbs, choked
at the neck, denuded, violated and killed.
When you kill one tree you kill them all, and
when you massacre all the trees you have
killed the soul of the town.
Can’t you hear the souls of the trees pining?
Can’t you see the violation on the gutted
sidewalks and gravel pits, rich earth  deracinated,
the town dismal and shell-shocked,
quiet and grieving, for we are all massacred.
We are all part of the living soul of the town,
forever torn down, fallen, dismembered.

It is all of us that have given our lives to the town,
never to be resurrected in all its glory and grace,
we once showed the world we knew what beauty was,
appreciated the simple goodness and green
of our town trees, simple wood and leaves,
we loved our majestic pears and maples,
the ballet of their tall columns, the whirr
of their bowing branches, the protection
and stature they freely gave us.
So when you cut down one tree you cut down
and pride of the citizenry,
we no longer stand tall, we no longer stand free,
we are chipped by the Town Manager,
sawdust to the Department of Transportation;
we have all been cut down to size
and we weep for our lost place in the heart
of Great Barrington.
Who is the man that chainsaws the trees?
Where is his heart under the hard hat,
gruff uniform and buffalo boots?
How can you take a razor edge to a  trunk,
watch a tower turn into a stump,
ugly and lowly, after you drive your cherry
picker to detwig and slash branches,
after you take the back how and maw out
the stump and the roots,
after your caterpillar flattens
the evidence that a tree every lived here.
Using the iron and steel of machines to
break the back of nature, destroy natural
water and root systems, choke life at the root
or the trunk, turn matter into mulch,
the upright into the log jam.
How do you, Mr. Tree Surgeon, kill your patients?
Rob the town of oxygen, birds and squirrels
of homes, lovers to scrawl their initials,
do-gooders to post notices, town squires
to note changing traffic patterns,
how do you turn your blades on the innocent?
Now the town is bare, the sky is revealed
ghosts of trees wander the town
after dark, carrying grandeur behind them
like a lost relative.

We who are left behind mourn you, oh trees,
for every leaf lost is a soul lost,
the leaves, like Whitman’s grass were nothing
and everything,
the nothing of matter all around us,
common and ubiquitous, plentiful and ordinary,
we are all one leaf, one living system unto itself,
yet  tied like the veins and the roots to the whole of the tree,
to all the trees, all the town’s life and heart beat.
Each leaf a sign of life, each person a member of a community.
If you hunt us down and snuff us out, our ghosts will wander
the streets forever, dragging the hems of our torn garments,
the detritus that was our life force, the hope of our existence.
Dear town, I look at photos of the proud Bradford Pear,
I remember the white, full blossoms of the equinox – like peeking under
the dresses of summer – something sweet and forbidden,

what do you remember?


Lee Schwartz is a New York and Berkshire based poet.  Her latest work appears in TRANS BODIES, TRANS SELVES, 2014, Oxford Press.  Also being released, Poetry Saved My Life by Trigger Point Press and On Fire, Bard College, where many of her poems appear.  Lee has been a winner of the Paterson Literary Review Prize. She has served as an Artist in Residence at the  92nd St. Y in New York City, as well as participating in the Berkshire Festival of  Women Writers.

Photo: danist soh

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