‘The Cedar Tree,’ a Poem by Richard Walker for National Poetry Month

source: Wikimedia Commons, user BlueCanoe / Detail of a traditional Pacific Northwest Native American dugout canoe with a stylized salmon design on the bow, Opening Day of Boating Season, Seattle, Washington, USA


I understand why the People
in the Northwest
say the canoe is sacred,
that the canoe has a spirit.

We know that a cedar tree
can tell us by its rings
when salmon runs were big,

when bears and eagles

and wolves feasted on salmon,
and left the carcasses
near the trees,

and the carcasses decayed, and
the nutrients went into the soil,
and into the roots of the trees.

And what else do we know, but perhaps
this tree grew where an Ancestor
had been buried,

that the Ancestor fed the tree, that
the Ancestor’s flesh became the tree’s
flesh, that the Ancestor’s blood
became the tree’s sap?

And what else do we know, but that
This tree continued the life,
growing to great heights,
providing shelter for birds and
other animals,

providing bark fiber for clothing,
and for fishing nets,

providing bark fiber for baskets
in which to collect berries or cook shellfish,
fine woven baskets that are passed from
mother to daughter, and from grandmother
to granddaughter?

And when the tree’s time was done,
it was felled,
and became a canoe,

a seagoing canoe that carried the People
on waters the Ancestor knew,

carried the People to gatherings and
sacred ceremonies.

And what else do we know, but perhaps the
song that comes out on the water to a puller
in the canoe
is a song from the Ancestor,

a song of thanks for continuing the
circle of life,
and respecting the interconnectedness
of all living things,

a song of thanks for respecting
the sacredness of life?

Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a newspaper editor in Kitsap County, Washington, and is a correspondent for Indian Country Today Media Network. This poem was included in his chapbook, "The Journey Home" (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2012, www.redbirdchapbooks.com).