The Poet Tree grows at the back of a narrow strip of sand and cobble beach in the Bahia San Juanico, also known as San Basilio, a remote harbour in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Fittingly, it stands alone, back against a cliff--this is and is not a metaphor.
San Juanico is vast and easy to get into in the dark, which is why we like to go there when we're crossing the Sea of Cortez from San Carlos, on the mainland. It is circled by cactus-covered mountains and virtually uninhabited--a few fenced cattle ranches ramble over the hills, their roads washed out, their gates rusty--and the back of the harbour hides an oasis where cattle gather, and sometimes die.
A volcanic reef stretches across the southeast corner of the harbour; it is home to sea lions and grebes, ospreys, gulls, pelicans and blue footed boobies. Sand dunes stutter along the backs of several beaches, rocky cliffs rise up like broken teeth; cactus driftwood and shell fragments gather in shallow caves, and buzzards circle in the updrafts, so too magnificent frigatebirds, their tails scissoring in the wind. San Juanico is a good harbour for sailboats and kayakers, safe in northerly, westerly and southerly blows, but there are few resources really--no fresh water and no food unless you fish it from the rocky ledges; the highway south to Loreto is 12 kilometers away across dry washboard dirt roads.
Still, the place is a focal point. Sailors gather here to shelter from winter northerlies, to burn trash ashore, to walk, snorkel, sing, cook together, or paint. In the last seven years, we've returned here at least fifteen times. Sometimes we're here alone. Other times, we have lots of company, including campers who brave the roads to set themselves up on a protected beach, or shrimpers seeking shelter while they sleep or make repairs. We've had bonfires, sing-alongs, painting parties, pot-lucks, beach parties, hikes--once with our friends Paul and Dee we even built a sort of beach fort as shelter from the sun so we could paint and read and swim and snorkel all day.
Huge sandbars extend from some of the beaches, so that you can wade for a very long time without getting your thighs wet--we like to pretend sometimes that we can wade almost to our boat, though really, that's just an optical illusion.
For years now, people who arrive in boats have left mementos of their passage on the Poet Tree--glad to be here, glad to have arrived, glad to have survived--usually their leavings consist of sand in a bottle or their names inscribed on a scrap of wood or a bit of shell or a ripped up cap or shoe.
Most of this tree graffiti doesn't last very long; within months the sun and the wind destroy whatever any of us have left. This year, on my annual pilgrimage to the tree I noticed a new addition--a silly plastic skull, obviously from Day of the Dead celebrations last year. Tree trash or poet tree, take your pick. The date remains, but I have no idea who put it there--their boat name is already wearing away. Within a few months, only the photograph will remain.
If skulls don't remind us how short life is, what will?
Finally, my favourite bit of the poet tree--another heavy-handed metaphor, a bit of broom to sweep out the mess, the old ideas, the dust that gathers daily and clouds the mountain tops or settles in every crevasse and corner and cushion. Perhaps I like this straw poem too because it isn't a macho instrument; I'd bet the broom-leaver was a woman.
A confession: we've never left anything at or on the poet tree. I'm not sure why--shouldn't a poet leave something on a poet tree?
But I never know quite what to say; I feel overwhelmed, not by the tree--it's small there, in this vast space, decorated in leavings, boat nail parings, not quite almost trash. So I stand beside the tree and look out, look away, over the bay, and paint or snap away.
No poetry for the poet tree, just visible poetry, here....For it is also true that this blog, visible poetry began there, in San Juanico, with looking and painting, and then, later, with some lines of poetry.
Poet tree, Bahia San Juanico, Baja California Sur, Mexico
Bahia San Juanico seen from nearby hilltop
Cattle skull, mouth of the oasis, looking out to sea
One of the Bahia's many beaches
Jay and Anita Bigland make beach music
Sand bar, Quoddy's Run (on the right), rocks at the SE edge of the Bay
Poet tree messages
Another beach, low tide