About 22 years ago the local historical society planned a party. The town of Greenwood was turning 165 years old, and the group approached me to write and to share a poem or two for a gathering at the Methodist Church.
I wasn’t interested enough in town/village history at the time to sit down and write a new poem for the occasion, but I figured I might have some older pieces I could share, if folklore and natural history counted.
Apparently they did. When the town’s birthday came around, I sucked on a beer or two then went to the church to read my poems.
This reading of mine had the potential to be another bust or… something of a pinnacle in my writing career at the time. My rationale was that a writer/poet could read for the public far and wide and be published almost everywhere, but such accomplishment rang hollow if there wasn’t also some connection to the local community.
It stood to reason that if a poet valued real people and real places in his work, he should then be able to speak quite freely among the people of his hive. I assumed erroneously that I would have little or no response at the church, that I’d be looked at merely as another “expert” in the art of word manipulation and would receive, at best, polite applause.
But strangers and acquaintances alike gave thanks for what they perceived as knowledge worth remembering. I felt honored that the poems were appreciated in the way that poetry was welcomed long ago– before the academics and the garden-weed versifiers stole it wilfully or ignorantly from the body of viable literature.
One man who had been a life-long resident of Greenwood and now had some connection to the area historical society commented on a poem about a locally famous pine tree that was levelled in the mid or latter 1800s. He had never heard the story about the giant “pine saplin’.” I experienced a brief anxiety attack. Perhaps, then, no one in the room of 40 or 45 people had understood what the hell I was talking about…
Maybe no one here had heard about the tree that was converted into a neighborhood farmhouse, or about the square dance that was held on the great tree’s stump when bullfrogs of the marsh chorused inbetween the fiddle songs and bouts of merriment.
And if no one knew the story of the early settlers and the “saplin,'” maybe it was just a figment of a poet’s deluded mind…
Fortunately I was soon conversing with Daniel Redmond, age 84, a life-long resident of the town. Dan remarked that his hearing aid had behaved itself for my reading and, certainly, he had known about the pine tree saplin‘, as it was called in library documents. In fact, Dan had witnessed that incredible stump himself. The old square-jawed, muscular farmer claimed that the pine tree’s stump reminded him of comparable, though slightly lesser, trees that once stood on his well-kept farm on Greenwood Hill.
Dan had been a “custom” grain thresher until 1945 when combines would displace the steam-powered, horse-drawn mechanization that had been a large part of the Redmond family life. Dan recalled how the changes came and made their impact on the land and people. His work experience on the local farms had added to a growing body of Greenwood lore.
Rooted in one place throughout the century, Dan lamented how people seemed disinterested in their land beyond its monetary value. For example, landowners invited destructive lumbering techniques, assuring a quick and easy haul with big machinery. Redmond knew the ecological value of trees. “They give us more than most of us suspect,” he said.
Although agribusiness and outside interests came along and lent their hand to the break-down of community spirit, Dan applied an antidote of sorts; he planted trees. He planted them on cut-over lands and on swampy acreage where he’s found that native pines grow well.
I had also read a poem about the vanquished American chestnut tree, and Dan recalled the species well. He’d collected chestnuts early in the century before a blight came along and demolished the tree throughout the Appalachian districts.
Though I’ll never feel completely comfortable with the broken and diminished farm community of which I am a part, I’m pleased to have contributed a little something to its re-empowerment (miracles can happen, right?).
Old crank that I am, I didn’t feel like singing “Happy Birthday” at the village’s 165th, but I had fun eating cake. For several minutes I’d been like a fiddler at the dance floor of a 19th-century tree stump. I was less than thrilled about the early settlers’ destruction of the wilderness, but pleased for the chance of striking up a tune with the chorusing frogs of night.