As I was preparing for the class, I found a Stenhouse blog post from 2012 written by poet and author Shirley McPhillips. In it she talked about the importance of looking a long time at something and working things out in your notebook. She included this quote by John Berger: “Look long enough so that the thing gazes back.” I remember writing that down in my notebook and returning to it sometime later to practice the art of looking closely at something, in this case the large cherry tree in my backyard, and letting feelings in to help shape the writing from it.
At first I just spent some quiet time looking at the tree. I don’t know if it gazed back at me, but I remember being flooded by memories – the kids naming it the bat-tree, hanging wreaths and feeders for the birds, watching baby robins hatch. After all, the tree was there the day we moved in, and had stood in our yard for the thirty-four years we lived in the house. I started by simply writing descriptive phrases: gnarled bark, like a hand reaching up, bruises where old, dead limbs have been removed, clusters of oval, deep-green leaves, rough, offering shelter and shade, stalwart and sturdy. Then I concentrated on the feelings: an old friend who has remained constant, new life, beauty as each spring it erupts into a bouquet of blossoms, protecting.
After jotting down some ideas and moving things around, I came up with this:
Ode to a Cherry Tree
Rough and gnarled
Scarred from a lifetime
Offering shelter, shade,
A constant companion.
Try looking long and closely at something in nature and let your thoughts be your guide. You may discover something new about yourself.