Arthur Dawson is a writer and historical ecologist who enjoys exploring and celebrating the landscapes of Sonoma County, sharing his “sense of place” through art and science. Arthur has been a Poet-Teacher with California Poets in the Schools since 1991, inspiring thousands of students to write their own poetry in the classroom and outdoors. His published works include articles, poems and scientific papers. He has written three local bestsellers–The Stories Behind Sonoma Valley Place Names (1998); On Foot in Sonoma (2004—with Rebecca Lawton); and Where the World Begins: Sonoma Mountain Stories and Images (2019). Other works include a book of poems, Saying this Place Right, runner-up in a national contest held by Finishing Line Press.He also edited and published Where Oaks Play Catch with the Sun, a collection of children’s poetry on the natural and cultural history of Sonoma Valley; and Creek Wisdom, an ecological history of Sonoma Valley as told by local elders under his small publishing endeavor, Kulupi Press. Arthur’s monthly column on Sonoma County place names appears in the Press-Democrat’s Sunday ‘Towns’ section.
Gathering Elderberries with Judy
How long has it been
since permission was asked before the taking?
Since thank yous for stalks
and fruits were spoken out loud?
Now everything has been burned away,
cleansed to the essentials—
the land empty and pure.
Before the fire, a house where we gathered.
Before the house, a Gravenstein orchard, giving its apples
in sweet gratitude to those who planted and cared for them.
Before the orchard, herds of cattle
sacrificing themselves for hides and meat.
Before the cattle, the land was empty again,
filled with gifts but lonely, for there was no one to receive them.
The hoop broken in two.
But before that, fire had different uses
and other meanings.
As the smudge stick gives its sage to the flame,
so we give our breath to brighten its glowing orange circle
and ask the elderberry for permission to collect its fruit,
letting ourselves be purified by the smoke,
making sure we are ready to receive the gift.
If a PG&E rep had phoned that night to say:
This is not a sales call. We’re just informing you
that your home will be gone by morning.
Thank you for your sacrifice.
I might have replied, after a long, stunned silence:
I appreciate your letting me know. We’ll be OK.
Bending an elderberry stalk heavy with black fruit,
we laugh at how the berries let go and clatter
into the metal cookpot without our even touching them,
so willing they are for harvest.
Today I give thanks—for a blackened elderberry
that returned as a green fountain, healthier than ever.
For your presence and a glimpse of the old ways
with all their beauty and heart-logic.
For circles that come together again after months and lifetimes.
For the fire, which created the void
into which so many gifts could fall.