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April 2014, vol 10, no 1

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Jonathan McKeown

A Tree


I am in Northern Queensland visiting my brother and his wife who have just had their first baby. The occasion is also an excuse for me to take a short holiday. I have brought Basho’s Travel Sketches with me and this morning, amidst unusual bird chatter and the intermittent yapping of a gecko in the rafters, I began to read A Visit to the Kashima Shrine, where I came upon this haiku published under the pen name of Tosei but composed while Basho was at the shrine:

in the days
of the ancient gods,
a mere seedling
this pine must have been.

It put me in mind of a gigantic dead gum tree that was still standing on my parent’s farm when they bought it more than forty years ago. I was only three. From our big kitchen window we had a good view of the property – despite its always being smeared with horse saliva. The big old tree stood only fifty meters or so from the house but (perhaps because it was dead) you could easily look right past it as your eye ran out to some more distant feature: the dam with its circle of reeds, or the row of old pine trees on the far hill that mark the border of the property. So present it was almost invisible. But there it always stood: its bleached grey branches, rooted in the sky, defying the winds.

I moved back to the farm with some friends when I was in my thirties. We hadn’t been there long when one of our dogs went wandering. I thought I could hear it yelping from the direction of a farmhouse across the valley, so I paid a visit to the neighbours. Sure enough, they had found Zeus and put him in one of their pig-pens for safe keeping. We got to talking over a cup of tea and the woman brought out an old photograph that was taken four years before I was born – looking back to (what then was not yet) our farmhouse on the hill. In the distance you could see the very same familiar old tree standing there, still dead in 1963. They say it was struck by lightning, but there is no living soul that could say for sure. It stood another fifty years or so before eventually it fell. My father was living there at the time. But no-one saw it fall, or heard it fall. He just discovered the great body lying there one morning after something strange about the sky made its absence felt.

Recently my father sold the farm. While I was helping him move I took one last walk around the old place. I found the carcass of that old tree: the birds had covered it in blackberry.

endless sky
my first thought
of eternity




crane