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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

American Life in Poetry: ‘California Hills in August’

By Ted Kooser U.S. poet laureate, 2004-06

Let’s hope that by the time this column appears, all fires in California have been extinguished. I wanted to offer you a poem that shows us what that beautiful but arid state can look like before it’s caught fire.

The poet, Dana Gioia, served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and has been a friend to, and advocate for, poetry for many years. This poem appeared in the anthology, “Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California,” from Scarlet Tanager Books.

California Hills in August

I can imagine someone who found

these fields unbearable, who climbed

the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,

cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,

wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn

the meagerness of summer, the dry

twisted shapes of black elm,

scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape

August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging

thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,

knowing everything was just a weed,

unable to conceive that these trees

and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon

without wind, without motion,

the only other living thing

a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended

in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone

raised in a landscape short of rain –

the skyline of a hill broken by no more

trees than one can count, the grass,

the empty sky, the wish for water.

Poem copyright 1986 by Dana Gioia,“California Hills in August,” from “Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California,” (Lucille Lang Day and Ruth Nolan, Eds., Scarlet Tanager Books, 2018). Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. American Life in Poetry is made possible by the Poetry Foundation and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited submissions.