Three Poems by Carson Colenbaugh

A Witness Tree

In the damp beechwood, fifty paces north-north-east

from the highway’s service pull-off, archival

traces of pre-industrial woodland: pines preserved

well in gummy turpentine, hollowed-out white oaks

scarred bone-stiff by historic fires. This slushy floor

spreads out scattered in the protruding snouts of antique

tree stumps. We trace the rings to play their records,

log data from these crumbling years. Across the forest

stands a witness tree, some old carved and long-expired

demarcation of property, settler incursion.

In a young bed of saplings it stands alone, well-notched,

untethered to breathing roots, limbs, the limitations

metabolism makes. For a hundred years and more

it has claimed this parcel for its maker, has noted

what was claimed, has upheld that bargain through flame and flood.

Those private boundaries are invisible now,

lost in time to lotteries, auctions, networks

dense with handshake transactions; they exist presently

as plots that bend with climate, the rain: pine-oak heaths,

acidic coves, granite outcrops, rock streambeds. We left

for the truck, followed the path of a flowing

ephemeral creek conceived just this morning

after two nights’ hard pour. Grimmia, rock moss,

along its uncertain edges oscillates

between definition and decay: it grows

plush with the rain, gray through the gaps: it unfurls,

dessicates, and, in concert, ticks the march of time.


Above Tamassee Town

Hawks hover low at our eye-level, drenched in sunlight.

Chickens faintly squall beneath the tightly woven

quilts of grasses and crops below us. We descend

the ridgeline’s knob by means of the thin path down its back,

stumbling between views of the valley, the old town

hidden under forest, its half-forgotten footprint

filled now with fresh plantings: Hosta more than Heuchera.

Streams fill the Bad Creek Hydro Project’s braced bowl

on the vale’s far side. Come nightfall its pumps will start

pumping, pouring the empty basin full again,

and by the following noon its turbines will charge

new-built leisure cabins, barn lights and single-wides.

Three lustful farm dogs within earshot rush deeper

into the wooded dark, as fast or faster

than the lumbering bison who once plodded

the region’s sod with their hooves, grazing after

waves of conscious fire expanded prairies into these

primeval hills, their lowlands first cleared in sequence

by archaic settlements, plain by plain cultured

into domesticity. Woolen, robust, huffing

smoke from their nostrils, they galumphed long before

colonial speculators built ramshackle forts

and shattered the town, though not for long after.

Whatever else waits lost beneath the clay’s slow climb

will likely be lost forever, stranded in this place

begun in bedrock and driven by bloodspill across

histories outside the school-halls: myths of horn and hide,

hide and guts, guts a great many lifetimes gone.


Beech Bottom Creek Almanac

One bridge hung beneath an engorged cover of laurel
by the old roadbed, the land owned, hunted, skinned
for three generations now. We snuck in through the brush,

headed off-path, downslope, over those rotten boards,
across that threshold, and came into bare mounds
made of clay-packed earth and dozer berms: a plush, raw place

for our quilt blanket. I rolled up my sleeves and felt
through cracks in the shallow creekbed for smooth clams,
polished chert and rose quartz, the silm of strange fish.

You sat and watched, and smiled. The wild hogs ignored us.
We laid back on our blanket, looked between the treetop
slits of the canopy, reached around for stones, for skin,

pawed at each other, at ourselves, talked of tomorrow:
“I like Robin, Andreas. Peter or Aster.”
“I got a cousin named Wren. I suppose we could just wait and see.”

Though every name may go unborn: our stale dreams
lost to space, time, my plastic infertility,
the stupid chances we take on next year’s weather.

Carson Colenbaugh (he/him) is a poet and forest ecologist based in the southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont, the traditional and ancestral lands of Cherokee, Yuchi, and Muscogee peoples. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Birmingham Poetry Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Hollins Critic, and elsewhere. His research concerning the impact of fire exclusion policies on early 20th century Eastern Cherokee culture was recently published in Human Ecology. His favorite tree is Table Mountain pine, he thinks scuppernongs are better than muscadines, and he wishes his banjo playing sounded more like Roscoe Holcomb’s and less like Kermit the Frog’s.