This Tree. Specific.

I became friends with a tree this weekend.

Campbell Folk School is a very community-centered place, so I arrived fully expecting to make new friends. I met many fine people from all walks of life and from all over the country. I did not expect the closest of those friends to be the tree outside our Orchard House writing room. I spent a fair amount of my weekend admiring that tree and writing underneath its branches.

Throughout the three day workshop, our instructor admonished us to be specific. Don’t say tree. Say white pine or birch or cedar. The work of revision is always moving toward greater specificity. Not just any tree. This tree. Specific.

The problem was we had no idea what kind of tree my friend was. We didn’t know how to name it. One of the workshop participants teaches biology. She used a tree taxonomy guide to move through the criteria toward a name. Deciduous. Broad. Flat. Asymmetrical. Ragged edges. My biology teacher friend suggested our new friend might be an elm. This made sense. My tree friend was both incredibly familiar (an exemplar of treeness) and otherwordly. It is possible that I had never before seen a fully grown elm. Most elms in my part of the country were killed off by Dutch Elm disease before I was born.

“This Tree. Specific.” is the poem I wrote about my new friend. I was able to read this piece at Sunday Morning Song. Reading this poem on that last morning felt like an appropriate offering to show gratitude to my classmates, to our instructor, to the Folk School and, most of all, to my friend the tree.

“This Tree. Specific.”

We are friends now, you and I. I sit

beneath your branches, waiting to know your name.

Don’t bother me with binomial nomenclature. It is your stature I most admire,

and the welcoming way you spread your branches to embrace new friends.

And your tremendous, unwavering patience as you press careful roots into dirt.

Ever mindful of the bustling, burrowing communities teeming below.

So many questions you might answer.

Did you know John Campbell? Did he sit here where I do listening for your secrets?

Can you teach me to make a meal of sunlight and rain?

Never mind. I’m pestering you now. I do that to my friends.

It is enough for now to sit beneath your branches, to appreciate the way you exert yourself in the world. Patient. Dignified.

I do not need to know your name. You are this tree. Specific. Friendly. My friend.


Crafting Community: Impressions of Campbell Folk School

We come to Campbell Folk School to craft some thing – a bowl, a scarf, a decorative rod of forged steel, a poem. We come to study and practice our crafts and, in the learning, we create for ourselves an entire community.

Find your community, the instructor tells us. This is imperative. Make a commitment and build your audience. And we set to work.

The writing is easier and better here, more forceful and clear, in the company of others. You meet gifted artists who don’t recognize their own gifts, people, who, like you, are plagued by self-doubt. You begin to notice that the joys and challenges and struggles are universal. You aren’t doing this thing alone. People notice your work. Your specific work. A specific line. A specific tone or phrase. And when they praise, you trust them because of the specificity of their praise. And you take second and third hard looks at your own work to help it be ready to share.

And the generosity of the instructor, laying down sheaf after sheaf of poems, a riot of prompts and exercises. You meet the older fellow, a librarian like you, but struggling today with his nerves, not sure he has found the right words to say what needs saying. You work it through together. Celebrate discovery of the right words. You laugh. You share. You allow yourself to be ridiculous, to say possibly stupid things. You are excited by everyone else’s success. Their success is your success.

The meals are a community of first name neighbors. You eat with black smiths, weavers, musicians, wood turners. In their other lives they are engineers, teachers, research economists. They gather here from Tennessee, Ohio, Florida, Russia, Bulgaria. You pass the bread. You offer each other second and third helpings. You clear the table together. You bring each other coffee. The meal is locally sourced and unbelievably fresh. Michelle jokes that the salad is so fresh someone found a snail in theirs.

And you befriend the elm outside your workshop door. It stands majestically tall, like a magical giant from another age. And only as you are driving home do you realize that the archaic majesty of this mighty tree is a true thing. This tree is thing you have never seen. There are no more elms where you live. They all died of Dutch Elm disease before you were born.

We offer our poetry aloud at 7:30 morning song. People listen. They comment. They applaud.

And in this spirit of wide generosity, poetry is moving. You are writing more today than you wrote the entire month of May. And it is good, strong writing. It is connected, specific. It has something to say.

This place draws art out of you. It helps you believe you are capable of creating beauty. It helps you remember that the effort of art is worthwhile.

And the sunlight is a smiling force. And there is harmony and all is well and all is right and you are finally ready to claim the gifts you have picked up so many times before only to set them right back down again. This time, you know, you can hold on to them. You can shape those gifts into a craft and let those gifts shape you.

This is why you are here. It is why any of us are here.