Naming the Tree May31


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Naming the Tree

Naming the Tree

James Dott

Published in Written River #10


Each name leaves things unseen,
the root name still waiting
just beneath knowing.

First fire,
seedlings wither in their elders’ shade
need flame to open the canopy.
Next mist, rain, thin soil, and sun.
Those not eaten, that didn’t dry out, would grow
until the next cataclysm cleared the ground.
One that sprouted after that burn has 1,350 rings.
A few felled by wind or slides
swept into rivers, washed to sea,
limbed, debarked by surf, battered by headlands,
rolled and tossed from beach to beach until
caught and carried in the great Pacific Gyre,
drifted for years.

Throughout its range the original indigenous names
that drew the namer toward the core of its story,
“In that place, in that time, there was. . .”
those names, those namers long since ash.
Now called Pseudotsuga, ‘false hemlock’,
its needles are longer, spiral the twigs,
yellowish green when young,
grooved above, below:
two white bands of stomata—microscopic mouths
through which air enters, water vapor and air exit.
Now called ‘Douglas fir’, but not a ‘fir’,
its cones hanging downward not standing
like candles,
buds pointed though
perfectly formed rust-colored flames
that ignite into the yellow-green flames
of new needles each spring.

Archibald Menzies the ship’s surgeon and naturalist
on the Discovery, duties:
bleeding, amputation, collecting seeds,
first found the tree on Vancouver Island (named for his captain)
thought it a pine, menziesii for him.

Thirty years later David Douglas, recruited
to amass new plants for British science, English gardens,
always traveling with Billy, a Scottish terrier,
collected the tree’s seeds in the Oregon country,
spread its gospel like Chapman with the apple,
trees he started still live at Kew Garden
and Scone Castle where he was gardener’s apprentice.

Spread far beyond its original niche
an ornamental, for timber, “stronger than concrete.”
The once tallest tree on Britain
is called Dughall Mor, “big dark stranger,”
member of a foreign grove living
where the ancient Caledonian Forest stood
before it was cut for cordwood, cleared for grazing,
one of its age mates, so tall and straight, was felled
to make a mast for a later Discovery,
towering over the pack ice in treeless Antarctica.
Douglas a stranger in so many lands,
prone to heavy drinking,
only at home in his joy: encountering new plants.
His tree now a wilding weed in New Zealand,
crowds out native species.
A needle persists for 8 years
leaves a scar on the twig when it drops.

Menzies summited Mauna Loa on Hawaii
with the first group of whites,
Hawaiians still remembered him,
“the red-faced man who cut off men’s arms
and legs and gathered grass.”
Douglas made the same ascent,
went snow-blind, wandered lost for days.
Neither could untangle the tree’s taxonomy,
blurred with misnamings:
Oregon pine, Douglas spruce, taxifolia, ‘yew-leaf’,
but not pine, not spruce, not a yew.
It’s own genus with cousins in China, Japan,
a stockier sibling in the Rockies: glauca, gray
like Billy’s muzzle after years of collecting.
Mature needles appear dark green to nearly black
depending on the light, the distance from the eye.

2000 BCE, 2000 ce
When Douglas fir logs, smoothed and grayed by their floating years,
washed ashore, Native Hawaiians split and burned
chopped and carved these boons from sea and forest,
into wa’a kaulua, dug-out canoes, long, double-hulled,
for traversing the dark water between islands.

Conical when young, columnar as it grows
Older branches arc skyward,
back of a cresting wave, upward curve of a flicker’s undulating flight,
dangle verdant pendants—longer near the trunk,
the bark fissures and darkens with age
flat ridges carved by deep canyons,
some so black they look burnt.
A Clackamas tale tells
of mice fleeing the flames of a great fire,
they sought refuge from every tree
but only Douglas fir offered its cones,
the three-pronged seed bracts
are the tiny tails and hind feet
where the mice dove in to be saved.

Few old stands remain, no new stands are likely to reach their age,
clear-cut replaced wildfire to open forests for the young.
The thick bark resists fire, heartwood rose,
sapwood white when first cut, ambers with age,
milled into beams, studs, flooring, plywood,
creosoted for telephone poles and railroad ties,
popular for Christmas trees.
The needles are flattened, blunt,
soft in the hand.

Walking the flanks of Mauna Loa
Douglas fell into a bull pit
was trampled to death by a captured bull,
offspring of cattle left by Discovery.
He’d been warned of the traps, walked past them, then turned back,
some believed a bull hunter named Gurney
struck him with an ax, stole his purse, shoved him in.
Searchers found Billy thirty yards past the pits,
fiercely guarding his master’s bundle.
That place in the grassy scrub is called Ka lua kauka, “Doctor’s Pit”
In 1934 local Scots erected a memorial marker, planted two-hundred Douglas fir.
Its needles have a sweet and resinous scent when crushed.



James (Jim) Dott is a retired elementary teacher living and writing in Astoria, Oregon near the mouth of the Columbia River. His chapbook A Glossary of Memory, an imagined memoir in 26 poems, was published in 2015 by Blind Slough Books. He is currently working on a sequence of poems about trees. His work has previously appeared in Written River, as well as many other journals including, North Coast Squid, Rain, Southern Poetry Review, and Turtle Island Quarterly.