A Rite of Spring (and other poems)

A Rite of Spring

Hurtling through these hills growing heavy with slash,
off in the clear-cuts, today’s radio reported
fresh cicadas fleshing out from pores in the crust earth,
finale at last for time spent preparing
to take the sky.
They ripple past the surface
gnashing in spite of hard winter’s hallowing act,
in spite of spring’s irreverent regrowth, that vibrant
erasure, to come back for themselves: shaking dew
from leaf-mold, shirking serviceberries, horse-sugars,
sapping the oak’s and maple’s bones: and for futures
never their own. Every one will shed its body,
latch husk to cork while cleaner forms flit onward
singing dirges on the wing, then fall back to ground.
And it is almost time. Air ripe for upheaval,
impending molt, thicker day after brighter day,
rejuvenescent and toilsome.
Off in the clear-cuts
the radio runs on. I hear this era is plagued
by cacophonies of flight. Green battalions,
missiles crooning on the news, blasting trumpets,
the music of near kings waging dissonant wars.
Each new brood comes, their songs and armies rise immensely,
reverberating through timberlands, past city gates
and through the summer, impatiently fortifying
their possessions, crawling into their hollow kingdoms.
Sumter National Forest
Oconee County, South Carolina
May 2021

Overlooking Pine Mountain

          —on the trail toward Little Kennesaw Mountain

Point of view up Pigeon Hill is limited, filled
with boulders, blackjack oaks, other gunner’s obstructions.
Industrial parks are quickly spotted, as are
the granite quarry, the municipal airport,
subdivisions, condo and apartment compounds.

Shallow-set in smog below the horizon, a knob
no larger on the land than an oak gall rises
benignly, without pomp, its utilities bolder
than its bare treetops. It is easy to forget
this land was stripped near-nude by timber barons,

before that by bombshells and soldiers, before that
stripped by railroad men, by fort-builders. When Sherman
plowed through here that hilltop was empty and all-too primed
for firing on, his orders quicker than the volleys
that bombarded the summit, that blew Polk in half.

An eagle flees on the wind, heading back toward
its home lake, its high nest, careening from the freeway
over Pine Mountain; not since the time of John Ross
has old-growth grounded its expanse. Only its forebears
knew what solid oaks could do, its ancient body

is running at a loss, though it is mostly puzzling
to call anything ancient in this sole present.
Its wings are modern, its cry is modern, its belly
fills with little pellets. It has argued far quicker
than most these contests are not so easily finished.
Kennesaw, Georgia
November 2021


At each rolling pass along this interstate
montane foothills decline into tough bogs of clay.
Center pivot irrigators sit motionless

as whale-falls. Red mounds dotting the pasture troughs mark
the fire ant’s domain. Outposts bred in heat, drowning
in insecticides. Their inhabitants never asked

to be trafficked from South America, stowed away
down in a ship’s dark ballast, just as we never
asked to squirm out of the muck. So far as we know

they perceive the world as we do, spreading their mounds,
cannibalizing ground into egg-dens. Now one grand
regiment begins tearing the plates and limbs

from a wasp fallen ill in their furrow, or now it
nips the new calf’s slim limbs while the advance teams
go for its eyes. All the others are hiding, waiting.

Watch them try to thrive, marooned in this alien place
and terrified through their veiled awareness. They endure
that simple feat of living with and not apart

from their planet, trapped in the Grand Design: killing,
gathering, eating: all the same festivities
of four billion years. And every perfect morning

vibrant scattered herds slowly emerge, stretching
out of their secret passageways. They go to work,
they slurp on what morsels they come across, they make

new the eternal pact and they choke when the spray comes.
In this they are not alone, they are among our ranks.
Little battalions, chaff of aspiration.
Franklin County, Georgia
October 2021

Waking, Civil Twilight

Locust seedlings on my sill, collected from asphalt
overgrown in centimeters of soil, peek
soft into beams of pre-dawn light, half-reminded
here of moist life shaded beneath matriarchs,
unsoaked rays absorbed under sheltering
pine boughs, signals sent by spring or sinking autumn.

Every night in the street-haze dark they fold their leaflets
inward, conserving water, protecting themselves
from the herbivorous threats found in flat munching teeth.
How they can calculate the sky’s diminished 
intensity is well-known: dancing with red light
interacts with the force of turgor potential:
and even confined indoors, they cannot be removed
from this coding, rhythms within rhythms marching
back toward beginnings.
                                          Now, before dawn, they’ve already
reopened, basking in radiant waves unseen
by my insensate eyes. Really, how long is the night?
I pose the question after years of sleeping through it.
Clemson, South Carolina
December 2021


  • Carson Colenbaugh is a poet and forest ecologist from Kennesaw, Georgia. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Terrain.org, Birmingham Poetry Review, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. Ecological work of his has been featured in Human Ecology. He is a 2024 Tor House Foundation Fellow.

  • Metaphor in various images and imaginings of the brain. As Michael Shermer writes in "Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us" (Scientific American, Oct 1, 2008), "The brain has been thought of as a hydraulic machine (18th century), a mechanical calculator (19th century), and an electronic computer (20th century). Scientists often use metaphors such as these as aids in understanding and explaining complex processes, but this practice necessarily oversimplifies the intricate and subtle realities of the physical world. As it turns out, the role of those blobs of color that we see in brain images is not as clear-cut as we have been led to believe."