There is a language within language that gets passed between poet and poem. Certain words stir us up, in a way that feels secret and charged.
For me, this word: pine.
Out of the thousand-plus poems in my poetry folder (the folder on my computer desktop, not the one on top of my birch veneer desk), there are 139 mentions of the word tree.This means that about 13.9% of my poems contain some form of tree.There are four mentions of cedar.Six mentions of pear blossom.Nine mentions of birch.Twelve mentions of magnolia.Sixteen mentions of evergreen.Thirty-eight mentions of pine.
A tree of expansiveness. A tree that is old and still green. The pine is outside of time, is a constant through time.
Think of a dark sky with stars, and the darker peaks of pines along that sky’s hem.
Think of Bob Ross with his fan brush, pushing the paint back and forth, back and forth along a trunk, giving this advice: “Leave some limbs out there; little birds gotta have a place to put their foots.”Think of the viewer who stands before his easel, nodding, fan brush raised, the feet of little birds accounted for. Think of the viewer who watches from her couch, no easel, no paint. The pine emerges, it seems, from the blank mists of the canvas; the paint uncovers the tree.
The baby tree I was given on Earth Day, wet paper towels wrapped around its roots like a diaper. Pine trees start as a seedling, grow into a sapling. That’s not true, exactly. Pine trees start as a seed, which comes from a pinecone, which comes from a tree. To make a pine, you need a pine.
Think of Third Beach tucked away inside Stanley Park in Vancouver, a beach inside a park inside a city. Picture the shaggy pines waiting at the edge of the sand. Think of pine needles underfoot in the sand.
Think of sixth grade camp. Think of being a young camper, hiking within the trees, kicking a pinecone downhill, happy or homesick or flirting. And then think of what it felt like to return to camp six or eight years later as a counselor. That marked distance we feel between the self at twelve and the self at eighteen. We don’t wish to be twelve again, but that tugging feels a little like wishing.
Think of walking through pines, patches of shadow giving way to mostly shadow. How the woods help you hear your own footfall.
Think of fall, of orange and red leaves and green pines.
Sure, think of winter, snow on the pines but not under them. Do not think of a Christmas tree, unless, like me, you never had a Christmas tree.
Think of boughs, of wreaths. Of a front door that you stand before. Maybe also made of pine.
Here are words I have carried around inside myself: “Stradivari . . . selected his pine from the Tyrol. I have no doubt there was . . . and still is, some quality in the timber grown there which recommended it to their attention. The density, elasticity, and durability of the wood depends so much upon the soil in which it has been grown.”These words come from an old book, Old Violins and Their Makers. Written by J.M. Fleming, and published in 1883, it is a fascinating cultural artifact. It contains all kinds of intriguing charts, how varnish was created, the anatomy of violins. In the back, there are ads for other (ridiculously-titled) instructional books by this publisher, including The Book of Bee-Keeping, Mushroom Culture for Amateurs,and Practical Taxidermy.
Old Violins and Their Makers was published after J.M. Fleming found himself wondering what made the violin sound so good. It then found its way to a library’s shelves, where it waited for me for over 120 years. Innumerable hands touched it. It was checked out in 1962, in 1967 by Sister Mary Gorman, in 1981 by Vivian James, and in 1996. In 2006 I visited a library book sale. I picked this book up, bought it for a quarter, and it has lived in my home since then, in the three far apart cities my home became.
The density, elasticity, and durability of the wood depends so much upon the soil in which it was grown. Here is some real beauty. Because of the climate and weather, the soil developed in a certain way, which caused the pines to grow in a certain way, which caused Stradivari to want those pines for his violins. The violin sounds beautiful not just because of the violinist but because it is an object of place. The instrument carries within itself a memory of the dark woods, of the dark dirt. The sound of the wind in the pines helps to make a violin, a seashell that spills out the ocean.
Think also of pine, the verb. To torture, to suffer, to afflict, to languish. As in, I pine for you. To pine away, to become a shadow of oneself. To long, to yearn. To pine.
In my poetry folder, twenty-one mentions of longing.
Some of us are gifted with longing. There’s me, raising my hand. It feels like waiting, and sometimes, there is the illusion that the waiting will be solved. A song can encourage longing. Or a person. A book. A coincidence. A sign that we are going in the right direction, and then that sign passing. A desire for more, for an experience that grabs sensation by the hand, says, this is why you feel like this. One practices longing, you might say—a sort of devotion.
At thirteen, I became enamored of the singer Hayden, and his album Everything I Long For. His low, scratchy voice bothered me, but in the way that I craved hearing it. That album is an odd mix of ordinary and dark. In “My Parent’s House,” (my favorite song on the album), the lyrics beg an absent beloved to return to the singer’s childhood home, to come back in bed for a weekend. The song is incredibly, plainly sad—there’s desperation, but more importantly, wistfulness. In this song, the beloved will not return. The singer knows it. I knew it. And standing there, in that place of longing, of wanting as an end, not just a means—something in that lesson appealed to my thirteen-year-old self.
So much planted in us wants the gone thing. But if that gone thing returned, think of how many songs, stories, poems, paintings would never exist. I can’t get no satisfaction. I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz. Time hurries on.
To pine. Not named after the tree, it turns out, but after pain. To cause pain in oneself, to suffer. I think of you, not here, and I feel pain. Doctor, it hurts when I go like this. But if I don’t go like this, I begin to forget.
Keats gets it, the good ache, the planted distance. From “Ode to Psyche”:“Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region of my mind / Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain, / Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind . . .”The poet-turned-lover will loiter in the darker places of his mind, and call that loitering worship. For every poem, a forest of longing.
Not named after the tree, but why not. The heady scent of pine, sticky, delectable. The delectable absence of something. The self with a larger future, more time to burn. Or the beloved.
Nineteen mentions of the word beloved.One hundred thirty-two mentions of love.
Or the beloved place. So often, we define our places by their trees. Meet me by the big pine, we could say, or under it. A shelter. A pine is a place, in and of itself.
The pine as stillness and movement. As shaken underbrush. As disturbed skirt.
Think of this poem that many people rightly love. “All the new thinking is about loss,”Robert Hass begins in “Meditation at Lagunitas,” and he is also thinking about pines right from the start. Lagunitas, California, a place lush with water and forest, whose name makes me think of lagoon, and also lacuna. Pineshows up as a word, italicized, a little more than halfway through the poem: “After I while I understood that, / talking this way, everything dissolves: justice / pine, hair, woman, you and I.”
This is a poem of recollection, gathering up the past to let it slip through our fingers. Hass remembers a friend, a lover. But also, nearly unprompted, his own childhood. And then the splash of this cannonball: “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances.”In this place, he pines.
Desire, full of distance. The thing that makes us want to eliminate distance—to chase, or leave, or return. Odysseus pining, and Penelope, and Calypso, and the pine tree mast on Odysseus’s boat.
Think of how a pine does not have leaves, but needles. This is a sharp tree. A needle can puncture, can stab, can stitch.
My favorite cocktail: a gin and tonic, which tastes clean and sharp and sweet. Lemon, lime, and pine, the piney taste owing to the juniper. Pine needle as swizzle stick, as cocktail sword.
Think of the Pines Hotel in the Catskills, a resort that my grandparents took my family to when my sister and I were young, twelve and ten. How there were no children there, except for us, how our parents seemed so young there. How my sister and I played shuffleboard alongside the elderly, and how we felt even then that this place was on the brink of collapse. Our grandma and grandpa swore that it used to be glamorous—the ballroom, the nightclub, the royal blue and teal carpet in the hallways. How this would be the last family vacation before the divorce.
The stickiness of pine. Also its ability to dissolve. Back and forth.
Think of the slideshow of photos of ruined Catskills hotels by Marisa Scheinfeld, abandoned grandeur: rows of rusted chairs amidst wreckage, weeds growing from moldy tile near an indoor pool. I held my breath, knowing I might see the Pines, and there it was, third image in the slide show, and eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh. Five of the twelve images. There’s the Pepto pink dining room, tables and chairs covered in bird shit, insulation and wallpaper peeling from the entrance to the nightclub. Most spectacularly, there’s the lobby, carpeted in green moss, garden hose and unplugged phone draped over the check-in desk, a lone music stand tilted and waiting in the center of the room.
This place was destined for ruin. It’s not that I long for that place. But there is a little pang—I know that my grandparents, if they were still alive to see these photos, would be heartbroken.
We collect abandoned places: “Thirteen Abandoned Shopping Malls You’ve Got to See to Believe!”or “Twenty Beautiful and Haunting Abandoned Amusement Parks.”Seeing a place designed by humans, languishing without humans gets to us. The ghost of intention looms large here, and the beauty of a world from which humans are conspicuously absent. And yet, the place seems to wait for humans to return. Loyal. Pining.
Is this what it looks like to lose love? A woman reclining on a couch, covered with moss and crying. A man dusted with rust, staring out a window. Odysseus looking out into the water, later dreaming of Ithaca, Ithaca, Ithaca. Each of them says, I pine for you. It will stop hurting if they stop standing still.
One hundred forty-five mentions of the word still.As in stillness, without movement. And also, continuously.
Think of that photograph of the oddest, most beautiful tree house. An old pine had fallen, but continued to grow—horizontally along the ground. The homeowner built a tree house over that tree, which snakes along under the structure. And in the floor, a hole, so you can see the tree sleeping. A window in the floor. To live in this tree house, alongside the tree: a life within a life. In every life, parts that have fallen, but continue to grow.
The longevity and resilience of pine. How it passes on its medicinal properties.
The pine tree graveyard your friend describes after Christmas, in the streets of San Francisco. The corpses of pines lining the curbs, spilling into the roads in January, no snow to hide them.
Think of the entire previous year while the pines were alive and growing.
The pine that became my ship as a child when I tied a sprinkler to the trunk. Every pine tree could be a ship, green branches for sails, trunk for mast. That would mean the boat would be invisible or underground.
In February of this year, off the coast of Wales, dark peaks began rising from the sand, like shark fins, like the tops of pines. These were the stumps of a submerged forest, which had been growing five thousand years ago, rising to show trees had once stood here. Oak and pine. Within the year, the stumps will be gone, buried again under sand by the water.
Think of every pine you have stood under in your whole life—maybe ten of them, maybe thirty-two, maybe only three. But think of the way you walked next to the trunk, and stared up through the branches, and then down at the fallen needles. Pick-up sticks. An alphabet.
The most beautiful typo that I stole for a poem: everygreen.
Hannah Stephenson is a poet, editor, and instructor living in Columbus, Ohio (where she also runs a monthly literary event series called Paging Columbus). Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Hobart, Poetry Daily, and The Nervous Breakdown; her collection, In the Kettle, the Shriek, is available from Gold Wake Press. You can visit her online at The Storialist (www.thestorialist.com).