No one knows exactly how the manzanita
its blood red boughs bone smooth
keeps its bark cool to the touch. In the arid
reservoir barrens of California
such adaptation helps suffer the sun
but how? Does prolonged ultraviolet
trigger strange and sustained transpiration
or thaw some more primitive chill?
I was asking these things as the moon rose
off a trail on Mount Umunhum
arm raised and gripping a manzanita branch
coolness passing through me
to the ground, when a chill in the forearm
moved down to the shoulder
and the sleeping limb dropped to my side.
I stepped away, shook the muscle
until the arm tingled, regaining its warmth,
blood flowing to replenish the flesh.
The manzanita answered: "I am cooled
with your bleeding, and the stain
of my boughs is the flush of drawn blood.
Here, lay your body in my arms
beneath these white clusters of flowering urns
and let my burls rub your back
leaving you drowsy and aged in the rays
muted by the moon, unaware
as I entwine the bare shoots of my root
through your legs and limp arms,
lifting you north to the circumpolar Bear
then south before Sirius, rising
and foaming with the phobia: Have no fear
rabid Dog, there is no water here
only man and his reservoirs, and the blood
I have drained, my boughs
bone cold beneath his white-flowering bier."
This poem was the favorite of a dear teacher of mine, Neil Elverson, who passed away in 2011. I’d like to think he had a hand in seeing it published.