Tongues in trees: celebrating National Poetry Month

Poet writing

In Act 1, Scene 2 of his famous play “As You Like It” William Shakespeare wrote “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” 

Shakespeare never visited Lake Superior or the Apostle Islands, but if he had, he would have certainly found “good in everything” in these islands as well as heard the poetry in this place. The summer wind strumming the waves, the slow repeating verse of the surf, birdsong in the bogs at sunrise. There is a beauty in these islands that speaks to the poet’s soul, and through them, to all of us. 

For centuries, these islands have inspired painters, dancers, musicians, photographers, and yes poets. This April is National Poetry Month. It is a time to reflect on the importance of national parks like the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, not just as places to check off our “bucket lists” or as the crown jewels of postcard beauty, but as reservoirs of the human spirit. These islands are more than just a place to recreate. They are a place to be inspired.

In honor of National Poetry Month, we offer you two poems inspired by the beauty of the Apostle Islands. Both were shared as a part of our “Sense of Adventure: Inspire!” program last summer and are presented here again for your enjoyment. First, “Tell Me of Ice” by Jude Genereaux (a poem also found in the book “A is for Apostles.”

Apostle Islands sea cave and northern lights. Photograph by Jeff Rennicke

Tell Me of Ice

Tell me your secrets, Gichigami.
I want to know what alchemy spins the summer sky
to gold and black magic nights. 

Tell me of your love in gentle swells, then
from where comes the anger of rage against the shore.
Tell me of rain and wind and 28-foot waves
and I will tell how fear paralyzes.

Tell me of the ice roads that scar your face
in winter; of ice that glitters in treacherous beauty,
glazing rock in dark places, luring both
the timid and bold to cross frozen water and enter
the winter temples of the gods.

Yes, tell me of ice.
What sorcery turns your capricious scattering
of water and cold into glorious caverns?
Tell me of creation and the wizardry of crystal arctic air
locked in time bannering the earth’s mixed blessings
of danger
and thrilling
beauty.

Tell me of ice, Gitchigami. 

— Jude Genereaux

From the mainland ice caves to the furthest reaches of the distant islands, this next poem is an ode to the wildness still found in the Apostle Islands. Here’s “Message from Outer Island Spit” by Michael Van Stappen from his book A Handful of Stardust.

Outer Island sand spit. Photograph by Michael Dewitt

Message From Outer Island Spit

It is like no other place in the world,
This tattered spit of sand and pines
holding firm between lake and lake,
The farthest wild outpost
of the Apostle Islands. 

And sometimes my feet come dancing
to runes felt in my bones,
Wake of disheveled stones in my
impromptu tribute to these
ephemeral shores. 

Other times gift birds sing to the
manitous of this place,
Their sliver voices skimming beyond
waves as if to touch the moon,
Or some other solitary shore.

Yet while wings and feet have come
and gone amid the waves of centuries,
Only the enduring pines remain
to whisper the one name
they ever knew:
Wilderness. 

— Michael Van Stappen

Just as no postcard photograph can completely capture the feeling of a sunset, no word, how ever well-turned, can completely unlock the beauty of walking a line of bear tracks in the sand. Still, poems can touch on something below the surface of the experience, and like a good photograph, color the way we see, feel, and know these islands. 

Writer Paul Muldoon once said, “One will never again look at a birch tree, after the Robert Frost poem, in exactly the same way again.” Perhaps after these poems of the islands, you will never see the ice, a distant sand spit, or even yourself among the islands, in quite the same way again either. 


Jeff Rennicke is Executive Director of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He is also an educator, outdoor adventure travel writer and photographer.