Ghost Trees and Ghost Birds: Video and a Poem

At some point during my youth in western Pennsylvania, I read about a magnificent bird – the ivory bill woodpecker, the Lord God Bird. I wanted badly to see one and I knew that my dad – a naturalist – would know where to look. “They’re gone,” he said. I looked at him quizzically. “They’re extinct. They need big, old forests, and the big, old forests have all been cut down.” My dad was right. You should know that going into this film – a feature-length documentary that is powerful and sad and very much worth seeing.

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Ghosts of Trees, Ghosts of Birds

People imagine they see them still,

ivory bills,

in remnant stands of virgin forests

too small to sustain these great birds.

In that way God Lord Birds are everywhere –

an image in burnt toast, a shadow pulling itself

into a triangular head,

a flash of red

as the late sun slants through the canopy,

or a fractured rock on a hillside gathering the feathered light

and darkness like a black and white diamond on a water oak trunk.

Ghosts of trees, ghosts of birds

Their nesting holes,

five inches across, 50 feet up –

hewn into hardwood with bone-chisel bill –

gone, too,

vanished with the ancient forests

into the humid air

above the endless spread of soy bean fields

Ghosts of trees, ghosts of birds

And so we pause

in the late morning

and set our paddles across the canoe’s gunwales

amidst the cypress knees, black gum and snags

as the mist lifts from this swamp

far enough away from all that

that it could be

the last place on earth

these birds exist

and strain our ears

and listen for double knocks

that rose and died 60 years ago.

4 thoughts on “Ghost Trees and Ghost Birds: Video and a Poem

      • It is deeply sad to contemplate loss, even of a woodpecker, whose noise might have driven me mad. Still, all life is important and precious. Now when I hear that knock knock behind my house, I will be happy that my neighborhood woodpecker is still there.

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