Issue 28 | Fall 2021

The Zen of the Tree

The forestry man says the tree is over
three hundred years old, a sugar maple that has been here
since before the time the white man settled.
It towers 160 feet above the pond, casting a shadow

to the meadow below the long slope of the mountain.
Three hundred years, and everything
is changed: jet planes and rockets,
blood in the soil, war and slavery, air and water fouled,

the atmosphere simmering with the heat
of an unsettled time. Even the Indian names
for the streams and the mountains,
eradicated by this march of civilization.

And, in the briefer interlude of our own time,
the losses typical for such families as ours:
here, on the table,
the picture of our big red dog Finn, dead

since spring; and over there on the wall, a painting
of my father’s house by the sea,
gone with the seasons and the winds, haven
only for the ghosts of my parents, my sister.

But so much is still as it was:
the tall, green grass growing at the base of the old tree,
dandelions dotting the meadow
by the pond, butterflies riding

the breeze up from the water, where
two great blue herons move along the bank
to the dignified rhythm of their
own elegant choreography.

Beyond the back porch, our grandsons race
long-legged across the broad lawn, chased
by the puppy, all tumbling together to
the brink of the pond.

The tree has a message:
the urgency of the human is nothing,
a caesura in the long, symphonic melody
of the natural world.

The tree will die; so will I, and so
will you. Nothing will change, everything will change.
For now, the zen of the tree
may superintend our journey.

Filed under: Poetry

Maxwell King is the former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and President of The Heinz Endowments. He is the author of Crossing Laurel Run, a small book of poetry by Autumn House Press, and of the New York Times-bestselling biography of Mister Rogers, entitled The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. He is working on a biography of early-20th Century Pittsburgh artist John Kane.