Late on the day of his death,
high in the alpine
above the trees, I crossed a field
more stone than earth
and found what I had climbed for.
Where ice and the cold
pummel the hard ground,
where frost and the relentless glacial wind
tear at whatever tries to live,
the moss campion
adheres to bits of soil
lichens have generated over eons
from rock. The campion, too,
has infinite patience:
a decade passes
before it will flower.
After a quarter-century
it spreads no wider
than the outstretched fingers of a hand.
But the flower digs in, buffeted by the nightly chill,
by solar rays, by hail, the Spring melt,
smothered for much of the year beneath snow.
Air trapped in its leaves
and clusters, however,
forms a minute protected place
out of the wind and
warmed by sun.
Here, other plants are born
was such an enclosure
in the roaring life below.
One time I’d been working welding
on a logging show in the Charlottes
I had a couple of grand saved
so decided to quit. This was when
if you had any kind of trade, any kind of ticket
you were in demand.
It was no big deal to change jobs.
I picked up my pay, and made a point
of finding the boss
and telling him exactly, in detail,
what I thought of him
and where he could put
the whole outfit. Then I was on the plane
for Rupert, with some of the other guys.
We’d already had plenty to drink
before we even got on board.
On Monday I woke up
in the Rupert Hotel.
I had no idea
how I had spent the weekend
but I discovered I was absolutely broke.
Every cent of my two thousand dollars was gone.
I phoned to the camp I just left
and asked if I could have my job back.
“Sure, Dave,” the boss said.
“Report as soon as you get in.”
“Uh, Mr. Johnson?” I had to say.
“Could you advance me the money
for the plane? I don’t have
quite enough to cover the fare.”
“Okay,” he said. That’s how it was at the time:
tear a strip off ’em on Friday
and grovel on Monday
and they’d rehire you.
It was special. Try that today, though,
and see how far you get.
I camped that night
just above treeline, by a cluster of dwarf firs,
a krumholz, formed on the barren
by a single plant
whose roots tunnel upslope
and emerge, or whose branches
pushed down by snow
take root. Such gatherings, too,
create within themselves
an eddy of more hospitable weather
in the high, harsh air.
These conifer islands are also how trees advance,
pushing toward the summit: forerunners
marking and clearing a path
others will follow in relative certainty
I had a job with a pile driving crew
–metal piles. The company was Ontario-based
and I think this was the first time
they had hired union labor.
Anyway, one of their foreman
was forever showing up to order you to do
some task you’d already begun.
I’d have finished a weld
and was packing up my gear to move
to the next spot, when the foreman would come by
and say: “Dave, I want you to pack your equipment
and haul it over there for the next weld.”
For a time this guy only seemed silly
but one morning–I don’t know, it was a bad day
or something–he really started to bother me.
When for the nine-hundredth time
the foreman ordered me to start
what I already was in the middle of,
I lost it. I began to whine, real loud:
“Aww, you’re always telling me
to do that. I don’t wanna. Why do I
have to go down in that hole
and weld? How come you don’t tell
anybody else to do it?”
The foreman’s face went white.
He didn’t know what to say.
He backed off, but others on the crew had heard
and a few minutes later I heard a whine
from over by the crane:
“I don’t wanna do that. You’re always
saying I have to. How come I
have to be the one to do it?”
After this, there was no stopping the guys.
All over the site, whenever the foreman
tried to tell anybody anything
you’d hear this incredible whining:
“Awww. I don’t wanna.” Afterwards, we called it
a whine-in. The foreman
only lasted a couple more days
then he was gone.
The heat of my fire
slashes at my face
when I bend to lever
a log further into the flames.
The song of his life–his work,
his music, his joy–
brought him a cancer that spread
through his body, shrunken
beyond remedy, and then the pneumonia
to let kill him.
From the peaks around me in the dark,
wind and sun and the earth’s turning
bring the snowpack
to the valleys we dwell in
–whether as water
or cold air
we breathe, and then we don’t breathe,
our laughter or rage,
our unfinished stories
whispered toward the stars.