An Inventory of Trees

first appeared in the Washington Island Observer

  1. Often when we pull out of our driveway and turn onto Swenson Road, my son will say, “I see a tree, mom.” Swenson is a tree-lined street — there are trees everywhere. Is he working on perfecting the art of understatement or has one tree caught his eye? “What does it look like?” I ask. He replies “Green” or “Two trees.” My son’s clunky attempts at describing trees encourages me to see trees as individuals. 
  2. There was a pine that had been growing in our garden for some time. More accurately, our garden grew up around the tree. It is hard for a gardener to cut down a healthy tree — something so vital —  but it was blocking light on three beds and it was time for it to go. With a saw and axe, we chiseled at its trunk until it slowly leaned and leaned, then snap! It was down. The trunk will become infrastructure for our farm’s compost system, but the top six feet of tree we brought inside, put it in a five gallon bucket of water and called it our Christmas tree. I also picked up a chip of heartwood, wet and smooth, painted it gold and called it an ornament. Decorated with jewelry, ribbon, a string of lights, the christmas tree continues to produce new green pine cones in our living room — it wills to be survived by new growth. 
  3. The wind and the lake work together to move trees, carry away branches and roots, pull docks from their mooring, sending them on unknown adventures. They return along Carlin’s Point or Sand Dunes or private beaches around the Island, smooth and fragmented portraits of their once larger selves. 
  4. Sculptures appear on Indian Point Road. The artistic hand of Bob Young finds an eagle from a swirl of driftwood, cut just so, yellow eye. An owl appears a few weeks later in a curl of hollow tree, two knowing eyes, wire talons: the gift of hundred year old growth, scavenged from the shore or the swamp and re-envisioned by an astute eye and capable hand. What bird will next be unearthed from the edge between water and wood?
  5. An average tree captures 31 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year. The average American adds 32,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a year, or what 1,025 trees will absorb in the same period. 
  6. If I need to be convinced of magic in this world, I look to photosynthesis of trees. As trees live and grow, they pull carbon dioxide from the air and spin it into sugar and use this sugar to knit themselves roots, branches, trunks. All the while releasing oxygen. Trees offer us a perfect symbiotic, benevolent relationship or what some scientists call “ecosystem services,” their life sustains an ecosystem that grants life to other living things. In return for the breath in our lungs, we slash and burn, we cut and mill, reduce swaths of forests around the globe into wisps along field edges or road ways, or mountainous areas where we find it too difficult to cut them down. John Muir wrote: “Trees cannot run away; and if they could, they’d be hunted as long as their bark hides, branching horns produce a dollar.” 
  7. In her memoir, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Janisse Ray traces her family history in the long-leaf pine region of Georgia. Her ancestors have been in the region since it was first settled by whites — “crackers” or “borderlanders” — from the English/Scottish border. Of her relations she writes: “More than anything else what happened to the long-leaf country speaks for us. These are my people; our legacy is ruination.” A unique type of evergreen especially developed to thrive the lightning storms of the region, the long-leaf pine was all but completely destroyed by her hungry forefathers and their cohort, fueled by the industrial revolution and reconstruction period’s insatiable appetite for wood. 
  8. The same day I read this passage, I caught a segment on WPR about a college in England, whose builders had the forethought to plant oaks in the fourteenth century when the college hall had been constructed using oak beams. When the beams needed to be replaced some 500 years later, the oaks they needed to do so had grown to size. 
  9. The first tree I remembered loving was an old and gnarled tree, known as a leptospermum laevigatum or coast tea tree. Its thick twisting branches bent down and kissed the ground before rising up again. It grew outside my fifth grade classroom and I would walk to school early so I could have a few quiet moments with the tree before all the other kids started arriving. Morning fog hung in the air lacing its soft green leaves as I tried to sketch the most beautiful tree I had ever seen in my tiny sketchbook. 
  10. I haven’t thought of this tree in years, decades even, and the memory startles me: was I really ever that innocent? The purity of the young heart. The heart before the advent of social media and doom-scrolling; the heart before the knowledge of urgent and overwhelming climate crisis; the heart before being sliced into pieces by statistics, slow disasters, trivial upsets and somehow glued back together. The memory of my first-loved tree inspires me to put down my phone and pick up a book. 
  11. The tree I love right now is the elm on Townline Road next to the historic Island Dairy. While most (but not all) of its compatriots on the Island have died to Dutch Elm Disease, the elm on Town Line spreads its magnificent crown to the sky — even in winter, with no leaves, its arch and unapologetic wingspan serves as an intermediary between earth and sky. 
  12. The white cedar on the bluffs pierce seams of limestone with their slow, methodical thirst. With scant soil, winter gales, summer heat, these white cedars are slow growing. Researchers have found annual growth rings of some cedars to be just one-cell thick. Cedars are not only patient, but inventive: if they fall over from the weight of snow, they will continue to send roots down, even at 90 degree angles; low-growing branches weighted down with moss and forest debris touch the soil and send out new roots. Here, branches turn into trunks and a “fairy ring” of cedars may grow up around the center cedar. 
  13. Today an icy fog kissed each pine needle, each branch and then froze in its embrace — the woods transformed into lace, an intricate cloud that can not leave the earth. The water molecules outline the tiniest of details of each tree and teach me something about intimacy. 


How Forest Store Carbon.

Trees Improve Our Air Quality:

Saving Nature Restores Habitat:

Our Living Ancestors by John Bates (with a hat tip to Steve Waldron) 

An Indescribable Sound: Lessons from a Raven

An Everyday Nature Article, first published in The Washington Island Observer

The silhouette of a dark bird flew over, the white winter sky bright behind it. I could hear the thrum of its wings and its call. A sound I had never heard before. It sounded circular. Like bubbles rising. No matter how hard I tried to imitate it when I got home I could not. Though the bird’s shape appeared corvid, I assumed it must have been a different kind of bird. For I have heard raven’s caw and crackle. This was so different from those bellicose laughs; it was ethereal. 

Then, I forgot about this bird and its mysterious sounds until a month later when I was walking again on the section of the same street. This time I could see the bird perched at the top of the trees. Opening his mouth, the familiar gurgly caws of a raven or crow. (For the life of me, I can never remember the defining features of crows vs ravens in the moment of actually seeing one.)

But, then, in an instant the call changed to the magical weightless noises I had heard before. As we approached the bird interchanged the caw for a ringing bell in his throat. Then it flew away. 

This time when I got home, I started googling. Sounds of Ravens. Sounds of crows. Of all the sounds on the Cornell birds page only one approached the magic I had heard in the tree that day. I emailed my birds gurus—Kristen and Eric—to help me understand what I am hearing—since Google was not forthcoming enough. 

They were generous with their time and answer. With access to a member’s only bird resource through Cornell called “Birds of the World,” we learned “the total vocal repertoire may be virtually limitless.” Kristen went on…“What’s interesting is that there’s a lot still unknown about raven calls, esp. since they can vary locally (birds can have dialects too, which is fascinating) and even among individuals. Ravens can also mimic non-bird sounds.” 

Ravens make a variety of croaking calls, but researchers have also noted “knocking, bell-like, hiccup, dripping, woo-woo, and toot calls of unknown function” as well as “growls” “whines” “screams” and “honks.”  None of these descriptions are fitting for the gossamer sound I heard, but now I know it’s because their vocabulary is more expansive than ours. (Note: I will bake cookies for any birder who records this magical raven noise so we can study it together and try to find the words to describe it. Both times I encountered this bird, I was walking on the north end of Main Road.)

So, ravens have dialects, are accomplished imitation artists, communicate with family members and neighbors in sounds indecipherable to humans, with messages not meant for us. As I learned more about ravens, I was humbled by all that I didn’t know. And worse yet— all that I had assumed. I believed the little I knew about ravens was all that they had to offer. How often do I make these kinds of assumptions? 

Readings in Door County

I’m honored to be reading twice this summer in the County. If you are around, please join me!

Wednesday June 12 at 7 pm for the Emily Dickinson Poetry Series. 10341 Water Street, Ephraim Wisconsin. I hear there is an open mic after the reading, so bring your originals!

Sunday, July 21 at 3 pm, I’ll be reading a new poem for the Midsummer’s Music Series based on a mysterious piece of chamber music that will be played by talented musicians.  Kress Pavilion. 7845 Church St, Egg Harbor, WI 54209



Poetry Month and Earth Day Poetry

I will be reading at Eat Local :: Read Local on Tuesday, April 23, 2019 at 7 PM – 9 PM at Pizza Man 2597 North Downer Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53211.

and for the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center at Boswell Books in Milwaukee on April 25 at 6:30 pm.

Nature poetry invites us to look more closely at the world, both large and small. In celebration of National Poetry Month and Earth Day, we’ll host Wisconsin poets Brenda Cardenas, Susan Firer, Alessandra Simmons, and Angela Sorby. They will read from their work and discuss the evolving landscape of nature poetry, navigating the intersection of ecology, poetry, eco-justice, and our deep connection to the land. After the reading, stay for a meet & greet with the authors and book signing. Books will be available for purchase. Thanks to Boswell Books for their support of this event.

Members: $15 | Non-Members: $20

Amy Gerstler on Writing: “Plunder and Take Notes”

What do you write and how to do you write it?

Most of what I write these days is poetry. Or that’s how I think of it. I take zillions of notes while tromping, stumbling and floating through life, scribbled in little notebooks whose outsides and insides tend to look something like this:

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Also, I collect items that have enticing bits of language on them and put them in the toppling pile of notebooks and notes that I keep on the corner of my desk:

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“Plunder and Take Notes” — Amy Gerstler

(the image above, for example, is the foil top from a brand of canned fruit soda a friend likes to drink, which got saved due to its possible useable-for-poem motto “TAKE THE MOST DELIGHTFUL WAY THERE.” I also borrow or otherwise acquire books, magazines, pamphlets, etc. to plunder and take notes from for ideas/language/diction/images etc. that might get woven into poems.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job(s)/role(s) and how you got there?

My current job is as a university professor. I got such a position through wild luck, and through the invaluable help and support, over time, of many generous teachers and fellow writers and others, too many to mention here. It’s an odd job for me to have for many reasons, but one of the huge perks is getting to have contact with writer- colleagues and with brilliant younger writers, and being given the opportunity to share resources, finds, obsessions, and discoveries with them…that fertile sharing is very much a two-way street, meaning that I learn a ton from my fellow teachers and students.

How do these job(s)/role(s) challenge/influence/inspire/intersect your writing life?

Unless money isn’t an issue in your life because you’re the favorite niece of a billionaire or something like that, I think that for any kind of artist in America, particularly an artist who wants to devote themselves to practicing one of the, shall we say less funded artforms, (such as poetry, in which you pretty much have to take as a given that supporting yourself and your work is not ever going to be via your writing) making a living while being productive making art also is a real challenge. How and where will you work to obtain sufficient money to live decently and still have time and energy to write? How will you essentially live at least two lives simultaneously: have a working life to support yourself financially, and a maintain a vital writing life, keeping writing and all you need to do to feed yourself as writer and artist central to your life? How will you balance these things and not drive yourself and others crazy? Can you find a writing-related job that you actually like and could be good at? Or do you want to find a job that isn’t writing related, because you want to keep a protective separation between what you do for money and what you do as an artist? Can you find a job where you feel you are doing important work, work that maybe helps others, does good in the world? How do you claim and guard your time to make art? How do you struggle with these issues across different phases of your life? I know very few writers and artists of any age, at any stage in their lives/careers, who aren’t perpetually wrestling with these questions in some form…

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“The mess of my desk at home. I also work a lot at various libraries.” — Amy Gerstler

Thanks for inviting me to participate in your blog, Alessandra!

Contributor Update!



Congratulations are in order for two former 9-5 contributors Paula Carter and Geoffrey Hilsabeck! Hip Hip Hooray! This year they both published their first books! Paula Carter’s flash-nonfiction memoir No Relation and Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s poetry collection Riddles, Etc. have been garnering great reviews around the interwebs, so I thought it was time to reach out to both of them and see what they have been up to since we last spoke on the blog.

From Paula: 

No Relation Paula CarterI don’t think it is a secret that writing and then publishing a book is a long process.  This book – No Relation – has been in the works for a number of years.  There is a piece in the book that I wrote in one of my graduate workshops, which was 10 years ago!  After spending so much time with these words, I was both excited and nervous to send them out into the world.  Partly because the book is a personal story about my experience falling in love, getting to know my partners two children from his first marriage, and then leaving the relationship(s).

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Naoko Fujimoto: Reprise

Naoko’s graphic poems kept appearing in my facebook newsfeed and I got curious about what was happening over there in her world since our last interview (which took place four years ago…has it really been that long?!). Here is an up-to-date interview with graphic poet Naoko Fujimoto. You can find more of her work on her blog and instagram account: @graphic.poetry.trans.sensory.

What do you write? 

I am currently translating my poems into graphic poems. My project is called Graphic Poetry = Trans. Sensory. My entire collection will be published by Tupelo Press in the near future under the title “Glyph: Graphic Poetry = Trans. Sensory”. I am currently finishing up some of my works. My progress can be seen in my Homepage, Blog, or Instagram.

Recently, I published five graphic poems in Tupelo Quarterly Issue 13. 

Can you share a little about your project process? Continue reading

“I write these things through a steady chiseling away at myself…”


caitlinFor some reason, when I post interviews I always want to recount how I met the interviewee. In this way, this blog has also become a catalogue of first impressions. I met poet Caitlin Scarano my first day at my PhD school in my lit seminar. I was entirely intimated. (Am I smart enough to be here?) Except for Caitlin and myself, the room was entirely male. These men liked to drop theorists’ names and wanted to “create knowledge.” (Actual quote.) The first day of class we went around the room and introduced ourselves and our discipline. When I learned that she was also a poet, I was like, um, why isn’t she smiling at me. I later learned it is because she is Caitlin.

Through multiple weeks of class, starting an orchard on campus, and running beside a river with a dog who is afraid of water, we became friends. She has just published her first book of poetry, Do Not Bring Him Water, by Write Bloody Press, out of Los Angeles, CA. Here is our interview.

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“my role as a poet is tied to a job we all are called to take on—treating each other with respect”

McKee head shotFreesia McKee is a working poet. She is a part of the Milwaukee scene — present, attentive and welcoming at poetry events and rallies alike. Her words have appeared in the Huffington Post, Gertrude, Painted Bride Quarterly, Burdock, and Sundress Press’s Political Punch anthology. She co-hosts The Subtle Forces, a weekly morning show on Riverwest Radio in Milwaukee. I met Freesia in at the Public House, a co-operative bar that also serves as a community center for poets and other residents of Riverwest.  A mutual friend introduced us by way of saying “If you two don’t know each other, you should.” I am so grateful to have met Freesia before she leaves Milwaukee for an MFA program next year. Though Milwaukee will miss dearly, I’m also excited that she will be entering into an MFA program and that I will get to read all the new poems she will write!  I’m also grateful that she took the time answer a few questions about the intersection writing, life, the artist’s responsibilities.

What do you write? How do you write it?

I write poems in small notebooks on the bus, at the kitchen table, in bed when I first wake up, on walks in the city. I “write everyday,” but sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. I keep a couple of notebooks running with notes, observations, ideas, and then I translate those into actual poems usually on the computer. Writing is difficult and it always feels like an accomplishment to finish a draft of a poem.

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“Small in-between moments” with Amelia Martens

IMG_6972.jpgDear Readers, You must forgive me. I have been withholding a wonderful interview from you of the poet Amelia Martens, who just published a collection of prose poems with Sarabande Books. I’ve not been holding back on purpose. You see it is the end of the semester. Grades are due for my composition students and so are my own research papers. At the same time, I had to find a sublease for my apartment, back all my belongings into a basement storage unit, and get sedatives for my cat to prepare for our move to an island three hours north of Milwaukee. I write this not to complain, as I am grateful for all these things: to be a PhD student at UW-Milwaukee, to have found a summer job on in an idyllic place, and I am grateful for Amelia Martens taking the time to do an interview with me. I tell you all these things because for a long time this blog has only been about writers who write and work in nonacademic fields. However, as I’ve just (about) completed my first year in PhD-land, I’ve re-learned that the work/life/write balance is just as mythical as it was when I was working as freelance writer and at a desk job, which is why I first reached out to Martens who teaches at composition at a community college in Kentucky. As someone towing the line between academia, raising children, and writing, I wanted to get her insight into the process. So without further ado, Amelia Martens:

IMG_0514Amelia Marten’s new collection, The Spoons in the Grass Are There to Dig a Moat, is as beautiful outside as it is inside. As I prepared to write this introduction, I thought to myself, well, there is just too much good here, I’ll just write about my favorite prose poem: But then I couldn’t decide between “Baggage,” about Jesus working the airport X-ray machine, or “In the First World,” recurring poems that turn the mundane into the absurd or “We Will Be Long Gone,” one side of daughter-mother bedtime conversation. These three poems, however, give a sample of far-ranging themes Martens packs into unifying tightly-woven prose poem form. Jesus, daughters, terrorism are all recurring characters as are irreverence, humor and tenderness. But you don’t have to take my word for it, poet Catherine Bowman called this collection “Wise, joyous, keen tender, she shows us the divine in the most unexpected places.” And you don’t have to take you Bowman’s word for it, you can read it yourself!

Amelia Martens’ interview is just as wise and tender. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

What do you write? How do you write it?

Poems. Mostly prose poems have been arriving for the past few years (although I’ve also recently written four book reviews). I write at a giant desk, rescued from the IU surplus store. It sits in our laundry room, right in front of window looking onto our backyard willow trees. I write on a Mac laptop, though most of my poems start now at notes written down in a rush in a little-Nancy-Drew-like notepad (there’s even a tiny pen that slips into the side!). I write in the small in-between moments; now that our girls are older (3 and 5) they go off and have their own adventures together—so I write until someone needs a Band-Aid, new pants, a snack.

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