Volume 24, Number 1

The Tree Singer

Ken Poyner

What year he entered the winding history of our gentle people is unknown. I can remember him in my earliest imaginings standing at the face of the forest—then dense and dark and damp with mystery—rounding his mouth into the force of Os and the tatters of revolutionary canticles. His words ran with barbs and hooks and unbearable line and his effort crawled like harvesting sea spiders across his forehead. Even then I could see the grasping magic in the man, and now I cannot deny the magical.

We are a fisher people. Every unaccounted-for morning we ferry ourselves out to the sea and drill it for our sustenance. We know each family of fish by name, and some seasons we bring in huge brethren by line, some seasons we bring in small takings by the bucket, some seasons we spear the fish and ride them to exhaustion. A meal of one or a meal of many is, to our way of claiming, a meal. We build with fish bone; we scour with fish scale. Our metaphors are fish; our debts are graded by gill.

The man does not fish. He is less salt and more soft than most. His fingers do not have the cuts of line, nor the puncture marks of fins. He sings down the trees. He stands in front of a selected ocean-fired, mature tree, hurling his song like a spear. He might sing half the morning, or he might sing the entire day. But always, at the end of what must be a proper time, the tree comes unbroken down. It falls with a crash of notes and a clatter of choir voices and when we hear it we turn out as one village. There is, with every fall, a canoe to be built.

The men chip into the trunk, their axes beating the unneeded wood from the ancient concept of water craft. They prepare an artisan’s fire to smooth the canoe’s inside. Our wives collect branches and fronds to make fish prisons: matted vessels that can be dipped into calm water with the day’s harvest still kept alive within: where it will keep until greater need churns, or until tax time, or until the insensible urge to barter.

It takes two men to work a canoe profitably through the intercourse of fishing. It must be powered past the breakers, driven around the whips and eddies of the water, stuttered past the reef. Then, to make the deftly positioned canoe of any use, the men must fish from it, entangling four hands as one: depending upon the season, working the net, or the hand line, or the warbling harpoon.

Every man among us now owns at least three canoes. Simple math says half a canoe to each man, or perhaps three-quarters so that there will be spares, is wealth enough. Yet every time the industrious singer brings down a tree, we rush to the fall, begin the work of turning the downed tree into a workable canoe. While we labor upon liberating the canoes from the newly dropped trees, we cannot fish. In the great laughing ocean, fish pass us, unmolested. They leap from the water in mirth; they espy us with one fat eye and then spin to espy us with the other, marveling that we do not come out to catch them; to thin their numbers; to make of them better, if fewer, fish. We in our constant activity become impoverished. Want is known where there could be plenty. Only when we complete every detail of the canoe that we have been expertly making from the song-logged body of the most recent tree-fall, can we then go out to fish: but to fish for subsistence and no longer for profit.

Perhaps far enough out to sea, we would not hear the man singing to the trees, nor the sympathy of the trees when they at last fall. Perhaps we could fish in peace, all sound drowned out by the bob of our small community on the great city of the sea. We would not know of the call of the trees, not cower in anticipation when we heard the singer’s air rising. We would in ignorance continue simply to bedazzle ourselves with fish. But we do not go so far out. We are afraid to be beyond the catch of the sounds that circle our lives, one of which is the singing of the man who sings down trees. To hear nothing but the sea is to belong to the sea.

There are only so many trees, and so, when he sings one down, we must make our canoe.

Our forest now is thin and the crash of any one tree is the death of future canoes, the harbinger of a time when we will no longer make canoes, cannot make fish prisons, and will be counting our losses of canoes and wicker against a time when none will be left, no more can be made, and we must seek the shade of a different employment.

And, when the trees are gone, what will that employment be? What will the tree singer, then nothing but a bundle of notes and unapplied magic, do? Where will he cast the shafts of his sound, and what will it transform? He will not call us to build canoes any longer. Surely he will find some other item that can be worked indelicately to prick with his ranging orison, so that we can be enslaved against it.

Until the next self-murdering task is set, we continue dutifully apprehensive in this one. And they are all such lovely canoes.