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Poem from Dear America

Enjoy poetry by Derek Sheffield from Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy.


What Will Keep Us

for Katie and Kelsea on the Save Our Coast Hike

The coast is never saved. It’s always being saved.
   — Peter Douglas

Every pack-heavied step over sand hoppers
           and weed-slicked rocks, through driftwood scatters
and the chill of tidewaters, over wooded headlands
           as wildfires blaze north, south, east—every step says
stay. “I know mermaids aren’t real,” Kelsea says, “but Daddy,
           look,” holding a whip of bull kelp whose lightbulb face
is a brown-green eye under ribbons of translucent hair.
           We trudge our miles, stepping over oscillating
anemones in sunlit pools to pause at Hole-in-the-Wall
           and let their tentacles tongue our dipped fingers.
And what’s this holographic sheen? Not the oil
           we would keep from this shore, and not plastic,
we see, just a rainbow’s iridescence beaming
           from a plant. Over teeth of barnacled rocks poking
from pools of sand crabs and sculpin, through foamy
           maroons, emeralds, violets—tangles of surfgrass
and lettuce cushioning our steps—we hike, flies parting
           briefly for our ankles as we take in the gleaming curve
of the otter’s tail as she rises and dives into clear
           shallows, a pliable needle threading us and them, water,
land, and rippled sky where the numberless legs
           of sandpipers twiddle their skittery flocks always
just ahead. For even the reek-slap of rot from a carcass
           too far gone for ravens or gulls we hike, for our own
place among the eaters and the eaten pricking at us
           as we see how wide the jawbone, how long and curved
the fangs. For the piping stutter of a crow-mobbed eagle
           landing on a shaggy bough, for the lightest touches
of day mist on our skin and our headlamps
           in the night lighting the tracks of slugs silvering up
every spruce trunk’s loom. We hike for what will keep us
           if we keep it. On a bare stretch of sand ahead, a boulder
splits into two bear cubs whose dark heads swivel our way
           before they turn as one toward the woods and lope
out of sight, to go on in the multitudinous dream we need
           to be beyond our reach. Out past the breaking lines
of waves we can just glimpse through binoculars,
           where the rounded humps of humpbacks slope one way
and gray whales the other, sixty-some otters floating
           on their backs have knit themselves into a living net—
weft, warp, leg, paw—kelp blades fixed by holdfasts
           to the deepest rocks. What is it they catch
in their drift of sleep amid mists and rolling webs
           of stars? Far enough where, if we fail, the drills
will rise. And what now as they ride day’s swells in
           and out of sight in the rhythm of our own breathing?
Our hike ends at the beginning of what the map calls
           Wedding Rocks, where people of the Makah long ago
carved the round faces of sun and moon among fishers
           and fish, a whale, an orca. What feelings
spilled through them as they knelt in these same
           unceasing sounds of waves, chip after chip falling away?
We trace the grooves with our fingers, five centuries
           of wind laced with the wet snorts and hunger cries
of passing animals. Kelsea kneels over some new swirl
           of shell and exclaims. Katie says not a word, drawing
with her stick something in the sand we can’t yet see.