The Lost Breath of Trees

an oratorio for vanishing voices, collapsing universes, and a falling tree.
                          —Lena Herzog, Last Whispers


in the days before urban sprawl this town
remained no more than cow pastures
logs skidding down to the harbor
gulls riding them like surfboards
a green belt embraced the one road north
a hundred years they say until the lease expired
in those days trees lining each side threw shade over
hippies and geese bound to the same direction
this was the rainforest and we took
for granted the trees that sheltered the sun
in shimmering light the music of wind
and leaves that left air breathable 
we thought the developers would never come
that Eden would last forever


if I remember well the first to go
was the old growth Ponderosa near the school
     what a racket all that sawing and sawing
     no sapling that one stubborn tough
     from thick outer ring to the core
on overhead wires larks crows and common wrens 
lined up like jurors surveying a crime scene
chortling and cackling a chorus of what’s
      this what’s this come see come see
     every so often one broke rank
     and swooped toward the cantilevered trunk
as if they could bring back to life those limbs
where each night they had fought to gain purchase 
     circling as if remembering the canopy 
     before the thieving ravens evicted them
     swirling in all directions birds
leaves one and the same into a vortex until
the tree shivered one last time and fell
      still I listen for the rustle of leaves
      sweeping clean the air


among the shadows of WWII bombers crashed
on test flights old growth forests thrive
in the deep waters of Lake Washington
know that the ghosts of forests reside in every city

now and again a crack in the pavement
yields to a sprig with one leaf unfurling
to what might have been the lush undergrowth
of rainforest or village green

stumps of roots fingering toward the sky
remnants knuckled in a path
stubborn as the gnarled toes of an old man
struggling across the road 

bark tough as leather peeled and frayed
the banyan the elm the oak and spruce
the cypress the pine the redwood and willow
a sigh a whisper a breath of fresh air


one morning on the sun-drenched asphalt
a blue feather lay as if fallen by magic
from some child’s dream of angels
was there ever a bird so blue so
cobalt perfect from downy barbs to vanes
to fall undamaged by progress 
among the squalor of high-rises and noise 
of backhoes awakening each morning 
was this an omen an augury a straw in the wind
to land here where few trees thrive
you look up at the birdless sky think:
this is a city   this a mountain
this a remnant of the rainforest


Copyright © 2024 by Colleen J. McElroy. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 22, 2024, by the Academy of American Poets. 

About this Poem

In her final days, Colleen McElroy dictated these notes about ‘The Lost Breath of Trees’: “Sometimes ideas come to me in dreams, as in the case of this poem. I keep a notebook and pen by the bed in order to write notes about my dreams upon waking. (That notebook is like a spy’s notebook in that it would be impossible for anyone else to make sense of its contents.) The dream that inspired this poem was so clear and strong that I had to begin writing before doing anything else that morning.”