Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Kasumi Parker
an ode to pine trees
A pine is any conifer in the genus Pinus, /ˈpiːnuːs/, of the family Pinaceae. Pinus is the sole genus in the subfamily Pinoideae. The Plant List compiled by the Royal Botanic Gardens accepts 126 species names of pines as current, together with 35 unresolved species and many more synonyms. Pines are long-lived, and typically reach ages of 100–1,000 years.
episode i: tulips.
in a rusty tray on an old chiffonier that smelled of medicine
remember planting them in the rich soil of the dacha with my baba
remember the pine trees of the forest
behind the kitchen house rustling in the wind.
don’t remember my baba’s face, her voice,
think I do:
photographs on polished bookcases, stories told over borsch.
chiffonier still smells of medicine, tray is still there, untouched in years.
episode ii: blueberries.
same forest behind the kitchen house.
stand with a wicker basket, laden:
black fruit of my labor, hands stained red with the blood of tiny berries,
taste teasing my tongue.
what in America I call blueberries:
large berries the size of my thumb, skin I can peel off, explode with sweetness the moment they reach my tongue,
a rare berry.
small and black and greedy,
bitter aftertaste as payback for a few seconds of bliss.
episode iii: pine wood.
scour for dry wood in the swampy forest.
pine wood doesn’t burn well:
won’t fuel pechka, won’t warm banya.
good for building,
lining the walls of my room,
long planks deda bought for a few bottles of vodka.
breathe in the scent:
time frozen in these walls
oozing sticky yellow sap.
stacks of old magazines untouched in years:
smell the Soviet time,
the indestructible plastic, that tasteless marbled design,
my baba’s drawer of fabric scraps,
hard linoleum floors.
born a decade after that smell became a memory,
thousands of kilometers from anywhere it existed,
why can I miss it?
episode iv: krapiva.
follow a tiny path in the tall grass:
pick daisies, ivan-chai, bluebells, ivan-da-marya.
a leaf of krapiva:
unwelcome surprise against my bare calf
gentle poison leaving itchy bumps for days.
krapiva can’t prepare me for the burn of poison ivy:
found only in America.
episode v: honey and cedar nuts.
deda comes back from Altai,
sets down the plastic bucket on the cheap kitchen table:
find a field of wildflowers
condensed into several kilos of golden goodness
honey with so much sugar
forms a white crust at the surface
one aluminum teaspoon of it already too much, too sweet, can’t stop.
and a stuffed, impossibly thin bag:
find nuggets of pure mountain air
bursting with the oil of a tree that’s been in those mountains for generations.
honey in America:
too liquid, flows too easily
plastic bears mock me from my cupboard.
episode vi: mountains.
deda takes me to Altai, now:
endless expanse of crystal rivers between hills
mountains fading in the distance
far from the dense northern forest I’m used to
there are pine trees.
never really go away, evergreen, ever there.
first saw Altai in New York,
the Roerich paintings.
mountains really just as blue
as post-impressionist paints,
surprises me the most.
episode vii: pine trees.
mount bikes, pack tents,
meet the bumpy roads of Karelia,
more pines, so many more:
long, tall trunks bare at ground level, leaves high above.
ground empty, rusty bed of dried needles.
forest appears different, feels the same.
songs sung in low voices, hollow sound of the guitar, socks burned from the fire,
boots melted from feet held too close to the warmth.
sit by the lake, think of everything and nothing at all,
alone with the wind and the pines.
pine trees in America:
small and crooked
on mountain peaks, overlooking green fields,
covered in yellow lichen.
go hiking in the Appalachian Mountains:
foreign and unfeeling scenery, leafy trees and warm forest,
poison ivy by my feet.
look for mushrooms that don’t grow in these forests,
berries I know I won’t find.
make shashlyk on barbecue grills:
a poor imitation.
I was born here, in this country,
so why does this forest feel so wrong?