A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed, 
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

This is the first stanza(lines 1–8), where the speaker introduces the poem’s three central figures: the Rock, the River, and the Tree. Although the reader doesn’t yet know the significance of these figures, the speaker links them to the broad sweep of geological time. Indeed, they’ve been around longer than the mastodon, which went extinct some 10,500 years ago, and the dinosaurs, which went extinct about 65 million years ago. The speaker reminds us that the only reason we humans know about these creatures is that they “left dried tokens / Of their sojourn here.” In other words, they left behind fossil evidence. The fossil record is far from complete, however, meaning that paleontologists have had to assemble a partial understanding of the past from mere fragments of evidence. Many things have dropped out of the fossil record, including the fear these animals may have experienced in the face of their deaths—such fear is “lost in the gloom of dust and ages.” The fragmentary language in this passage mimics the fragmentary nature of the fossil record, making the reader do interpretive work that echoes the work of paleontologists. That is, we have to make our own connections when the links between individual lines don’t make immediate sense.

Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours—your passages have been paid.

These lines (lines 67–71) appear in the ninth stanza, where the Tree speaks about belonging. Earlier in the stanza, the Tree addresses three broad groups of people. First, the Tree addresses Native Americans, who were the first inhabitants of what’s now known as the United states. The Tree then addresses European and other immigrants who came to the United States by choice. Finally, the Tree addresses West African peoples who were brought against their will. After these three addresses, the Tree utters the words quoted in the passage above. Here, the Tree speaks to all the groups at once, inviting us to gather by the side of the River and to plant ourselves near the Tree. In effect, the Tree is telling us that no matter how we came to live on this land, we belong here. The land belongs to all, “No less to Midas than the mendicant. / No less to you now than the mastodon then” (lines 98–99). The Tree emphasizes this message of universal belonging when it states, “your passages have been paid.” That is, no debts are left to be paid by anyone who currently inhabits this land.

History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

These lines (lines 74–76), which bring the ninth stanza to a close, make explicit one of the poem’s central themes: the importance of reckoning with the past. That said, it’s difficult to know who says these words. Much of the ninth stanza consists of the Tree speaking to the current inhabitants of the United States. However, as the stanza draws to a close, the scope of the address seems to take on a sweeping grandeur that seems more closely associated with the poem’s main speaker. Recall, for instance, the broad references to geological time that the poem opens with. There, the main speaker spoke of the deep history associated with long-extinct species, like the mastodon and the dinosaurs. Here again, they draw our attention to the matter of history. This time, however, they focus on the more recent history that has just been excavated in the Tree’s address. It is this more recent history of European arrival, colonization, and enslavement that has caused a “wrenching pain” that “Cannot be unlived.” As the main speaker goes on to insist, we cannot pretend as if this history had never happened. Instead, we must face it with courage so that it “need not be lived again.”

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.

The speaker says these lines (lines 77–80) in the tenth stanza, which marks a turning point in the poem. Up to this moment, most of the poem has consisted of the individual speeches made by the Rock, the River, and the Tree. These speeches have largely focused on history and on the importance of reckoning with the past. Here, however, the speaker turns toward the future. They instruct us readers to lift our eyes and gaze upon the breaking of a new day, which symbolizes the beginning of a better and brighter future. But we should pay close attention to the speaker’s words, lest we believe that this future will simply come of its own accord. The speaker does say that this new day is “breaking for you,” which suggests that all we need to do is sit back passively and let the morning come. But the speaker goes on to give an additional instruction: “Give birth again / To the dream.” This instruction implies that we need to participate actively in the creation of a better future. Furthermore, the participation will be ongoing. We don’t just give birth to the dream once; we must always be ready to “give birth again.”