While a gale unravels the high ground
down in the valley birches sway
safe in their number, but for one
its moorings shallow, roots frayed –
stunted by the limestone met too soon
it tugs and writhes against that vital ratio
of height above the ground to depth below.
Neighbours keep on shouldering it home
until a ruptured ligament lurches it
out of whack, beyond their sweep –
in a landscape layered like a palimpsest
where the scars gaping high and raw
on seasoned trees shed the boughs
lazing bleary in their own last year’s leaves
pre-nascent gullies on the valley floor
already host to moss and ivy spurs –
so the birch is losing grip, its bearings slide
sinews stretch to over-reach and snarl
as they let loose their load
kaleidoscoping twigs and sky
splinters screech as timbers collide:
it’s hacking neighbours’ limbs, slaying shoots
and saplings of its closest kin.
It comes to rest in wreckage
like an open grave.
We approach the risen face,
its root-beard clumped and dropping gritty locks,
to witness, at its nape, wood-flesh
unfurl from lacerated bark
a star of sky, and the landed birch
laying out the course
for a new earth-vein.
‘How Rivers Begin’ appears in Fay Musselwhite’s debut collection Contraflow. Listen to Fay Musselwhite reading this poem on location: