To a California Incense Cedar in North Carolina


The young pyramid once towered,

Boughs layering spoke on spoke—

A glossy weave-and-fan cloak

Where blue-green birdsong showered.


Fifty years furrowed lichened bark—

Now branches thrust knobby elbows,

And the trunk twists, peeling fibrous

And cinnamon stark.


I stoop at the swelling base

To break off a branchlet broom

And palm-rub my brutal desire

For the ginger-pungent way he soaped me.


They will cut the cedar to make room

For apple-scented sweet brier;

I will stir frost-bitten rose hips into jelly.

The stories behind the image

The lean of this tree in the Coker Arboretum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill always gave me pause. It’s a story of ancient geometry distorted. I attempted several times to fit it to a form (e.g., sonnet and terza rima). But sometimes you have to let go and allow nature to take its own course.

This California incense cedar has been a popular subject for painters. To celebrate the first 100 years of this oasis in the heart of the campus, Curator Dan Stern wrote A Haven in the Heart of Chapel Hill: Artists Celebrate the Coker Arboretum in 2004. It mixes history, photographs, and color reproductions of artists’ renderings of arboretum scenes and botanical specimens. You can learn more about the book by visiting the Coker Arboretum online.


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