Mother Tree, Ailanthus Altissima

Felicia Mitchell

A paradox inhabits my woods,
a tree both ornamental and invasive.
The birds do not mind it, but I do.
Each spring, I walk these woods
looking for morels and wildflowers,
pulling garlic mustard before it goes to seed.
The sapling Trees of Heaven go too—
hacked down and even poisoned,
despite my fear of herbicides.
I wear gloves and covered shoes
as I spray the bark of each hacked sapling.
I apologize to every tree, to the soil,
to myself for failing to avoid herbicides
the way I once failed to avoid chemo.
We are not always in charge of what invades.
Last year, Dutchman’s Breeches emerged
where I killed a colony of Ailanthus.
This year, the Dutchman’s Breeches have spread.
Violets and ferns want to flourish there too.
Maypops dancing across the hill are my offspring.
But I am nothing if not hypocritical.
I know that every year more saplings will come,
the mother root within the soil branching out
to compete for a natural habitat.
How many years has this tree grown, this tall tree
that I stand and look at every summer?
How did it end up in a grove of beeches?
What else would return to my woods if I killed it?
One year, I will chop down the mother tree
that sends its roots and chemicals out like toxins
that are as bad, I think, as cancer.
But she and I are kin, this tree.
Both of us are invasive species,
my own body a map of colonization of this country,
my own survival dependent on weeding my genes
and poisoning the cells that take up too much room.
It is hard to kill a tree: a sapling or an unborn tree.
I know I will die before the Ailanthus destroys my woods.
But I want to pass this land on, I want its flowers to come.
Bears that trek out back may one day find a pawpaw.
I want to believe anything is possible if I believe.


Felicia Mitchell has lived in the mountains of southwest Virginia since 1987. Mitchell’s poems have been published widely in journals and anthologies, including in the recent anthologies “Mountains Piled Upon Mountains. Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene”; (WVU Press) and “Rewilding. Poems for the Environment” (Flexible Press). “Waltzing with Horses,” a collection of poems, is available from Press 53. She also edited “Her Words. Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women’s Poetry” for University of Tennessee Press.