Friday, July 12, 2019

Summer of Tree Books: The Overstory (lack of) progress, Grief, Midsommar

Reader, I ain’t gonna lie—I haven’t made much progress this week on The Overstory. But I plan to, soon, and even though I didn't get many pages read, I’ve been thinking about the book nevertheless, and about trees, and lots of tree-related things.
The Overstory is written in a series of stories. Each chapter is a complete branch, if you will, about a unique character or characters, not related (at this point, anyway) to the other branches/chapters of the book. And like any collection of independent stories, I like some better than others. All of them are vivid. An Indian boy of immigrant parents finds his freedom in computers after falling from a tree and becoming paralyzed. A couple’s romantic history takes plant-related twists and turns. This week, my thoughts kept returning to the third chapter, titled "Adam Appich," which tells the story of a family with four children. When each child was born, the father chose a tree to plant:  “Leigh’s elm, Jean’s ash, Emmett’s ironwood, and Adam’s maple.” Somehow, the characteristics of each tree seem to correspond to the characteristics of the children, now grown, and in some cases, to  have directed the course of their lives. And this seemed to me a sort of reverse idea to that aspect of Rules for Visiting I talked about last week—when May and her dad were trying to choose a tree at the end of his life, to represent him.
When I was an adolescent, once I wrote a note to God and buried it under the tree in our front yard. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I’m sure it was something pleading. Like many people who end up being writers, I had many emotions and a flair for drama even then. I think about driving up to see that tree, to see if it’s still there, to see what kind of tree it is.
My mom passed last year and in the worst throes of grief, I feel like I’m floating, rootless. Around the same time she died, I was forced from my home, where we had chosen every element under our feet: tile, landscaping, dark wood floor. I lost that house, other places that felt like home, and my mother, all at the same time. A couple of weeks ago I was missing her, suffering, but also coming out of this latest round, feeling strong and counting blessings, and a thought occurred to me: maybe when all foundations are pulled out from under us, that is when we realize it’s been our own two feet holding us up all along.
I saw the movie Midsommar last night with two of my sons. It’s one of the strangest movies I’ve seen in some time—innovative, with thrilling and disturbing visuals. The main character is suffering from grief; the acting struck me as raw and true. It’s not a film that’s easy to describe and I won’t try. But there are strong themes throughout about nature. When old people in a commune die, the bodies are cremated and their ashes placed into the trunk of a fallen tree. In the surrounding forest, trees seem to pulsate with life and in one scene—I swear—the main character takes mushrooms and as she hallucinates, her shoes seem to be filled with roots instead of flesh and bone. Rooted. Her own two feet.
This week, my friend bought some new plants and I picked up the old ones to plant in my yard. I’m terrible with indoor plants. The only things I’ve managed to keep alive are three braided money trees. They’re a type of bonsai, I believe, and almost impossible to kill, either with too much water or sun, or not enough. They’re often given as memorial gifts, and I received one of them from a friend when my mom passed. Another was a gift from the housekeeper I had for seventeen years, before we parted ways when I moved. I can’t remember where the third plant came from but it’s over three feet tall now. Anyway, I’m hoping my friend’s plants thrive here, that they’re able to find some footing.
And now...a tree poem:
Roots and leaves themselves alone
by Walt Whitman
Roots and leaves themselves alone are these,
Scents brought to men and women from the wild woods and pond-side,
Breast-sorrel and pinks of love, fingers that wind around tighter
than vines,
Gushes from the throats of birds hid in the foliage of trees as the
sun is risen,
Breezes of land and love set from living shores to you on the living
sea, to you O sailors!
Frost-mellow'd berries and Third-month twigs offer'd fresh to young
persons wandering out in the fields when the winter breaks up,
Love-buds put before you and within you whoever you are,
Buds to be unfolded on the old terms,
If you bring the warmth of the sun to them they will open and bring
form, color, perfume, to you,
If you become the aliment and the wet they will become flowers,
fruits, tall branches and trees.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Summer of Tree Books: Rules for Visiting

Interspersed throughout Jessica Francis Kane’s new novel, Rules for Visiting, are lovely drawings of trees, like this one of the yew. The drawings are by Edward Carey and in the book, they represent “tree sheets” given by an elderly man to his daughter, as they try to decide which one to plant in memoriam when he’s gone. This may seem like a strange notion but the daughter, May Attaway, is a botanist by trade. She spends more time with plants than with people and over the course of the novel, she sets out on a journey to try to amend this.
I was fortunate to be able to chat with Jessica this week for a LitChat on Twitter. (You can read the transcript here.) We talked about her unique, initial inspiration for the novel. After the author Amanda Davis’s untimely passing in 2003, McSweeney’s set up a memorial page and as Jessica read the many comments from Davis’s many, many friends, she began to contemplate writing something about friendship—namely, exploring what it takes to be a good friend. And as novels tend to do, it became a stewpot of many other things as well. But that initial spark remains in the final product; the story is about May Attaway’s quest to reconnect with four friends from her past. Among the novel’s other ingredients: May’s ruminations about plants and trees, but also classic books and writers. May also notes the outpouring of messages for an author who has passed and tries to come to grips with a family tragedy and her life choices. And May has some thoughts about social media. The result is a touching novel about friendship, building families, and maintaining face-to-face connections despite the many ways we can interact more superficially on devices.

I have “known” Jessica Francis Kane for several years. I believe we first interacted online when I reached out regarding her story collection, This Close, which I loved. Recently, she was kind enough to read my novel Bellflower and offer a few words in support. Leading up to and through the publication of Rules for Visiting, Jessica has been busy touring and writing articles and personal essays, several of which I’ve read. And it seems to me that my experience of “knowing” her, and then reading a little about her personal journey through these essays, and then reading the novel—which, being a writer myself, I know to be an amalgam of conscious and subconscious aims—well, what can I say? My experience seems to represent some of what she was getting at with this novel: What constitutes true connection? How do we build our family and friend networks, and what does it take to nourish them so they continue to grow? 
I can hear you asking: WHAT ABOUT THE TREES? Yes, this book delivers on that too. The tree sheets are informative and make you think about the individualization between species (and humans, of course). Without giving away too much (because I really do think you should read this book), one of the most surprising aspects of this novel, for me, was the amount of emotion I felt for one particular tree, in one particular scene.
You may also be wondering, WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OVERSTORY? Reader, I had to deviate from my intended Summer of Tree Books schedule to read Rules for Visiting in time for our LitChat. But fear not! I am back into the larger tome (150ish pages now), and will have a full progress report next week, along with another tree poem. In the meantime, if you'd like to become Jessica Francis Kane's online friend, please find her on Twitter: Better yet, buy this accomplished, heartfelt novel.

Friday, June 28, 2019

In the Tree House at Night

On this second Friday of summer, I'm still reading The Overstory, by Richard Powers, and while perhaps that first ecstatic response has cooled, I'm still enjoying it quite a bit. I'm about one hundred pages in. At this point, the novel feels like instruments in a symphony warming up. I don't feel like saying much about it at this point, so I give you a lovely tree-ish poem instead:

In the Tree House at Night

by James Dickey
And now the green household is dark.   
The half-moon completely is shining   
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees.   
To be dead, a house must be still.
The floor and the walls wave me slowly;   
I am deep in them over my head.   
The needles and pine cones about me

Are full of small birds at their roundest,   
Their fists without mercy gripping
Hard down through the tree to the roots   
To sing back at light when they feel it.   
We lie here like angels in bodies,
My brothers and I, one dead,
The other asleep from much living,

In mid-air huddled beside me.
Dark climbed to us here as we climbed
Up the nails I have hammered all day
Through the sprained, comic rungs of the ladder   
Of broom handles, crate slats, and laths
Foot by foot up the trunk to the branches   
Where we came out at last over lakes

Of leaves, of fields disencumbered of earth   
That move with the moves of the spirit.   
Each nail that sustains us I set here;
Each nail in the house is now steadied
By my dead brother’s huge, freckled hand.   
Through the years, he has pointed his hammer   
Up into these limbs, and told us

That we must ascend, and all lie here.   
Step after step he has brought me,   
Embracing the trunk as his body,
Shaking its limbs with my heartbeat,   
Till the pine cones danced without wind   
And fell from the branches like apples.   
In the arm-slender forks of our dwelling

I breathe my live brother’s light hair.   
The blanket around us becomes
As solid as stone, and it sways.
With all my heart, I close
The blue, timeless eye of my mind.   
Wind springs, as my dead brother smiles   
And touches the tree at the root;

A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;   
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir   
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?   
When may I fall strangely to earth,

Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?   
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?   
My green, graceful bones fill the air   
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Overstory: First Impressions and "Wild Orchard"

I’m afraid this won’t be a very rational post. I started reading Richard Powers’s The Overstory this week. I’ve read twenty-three pages: a prefatory section called “Roots,” and the first chapter, “Nicholas Hoel.” I read these twenty-three pages over two readings, with a few days in between, because it was so good I waited to pick it up again until I could give undivided attention. Twenty-three pages. In them: a saga that stretches over almost a century. Four generations of a family and a story about the chestnut tree brought west as a seed. Twenty-three pages full of characters and yet, I cared about each one. I cared deeply about that tree. Actually, I cared, already, about all trees. There were so many wonderful things happening in those pages and as I read, I couldn’t believe the things that were possible with words: descriptions, humanity, rhythm, emotion, so many universal, a-ha moments. Really. And at the end of the first chapter, I cried. I know that sounds very dramatic but I did. Like the way you’d cry if you saw a baby born, or a particularly impressive natural phenomenon your mind almost can’t process. Or an exquisite painting. Or how you'd cry if you just read fiction that fuels the part of you that believes in the boundless ability of words to touch hearts and souls, that part of you that has always believed but sometimes forgets, for a while.

I don’t know if the next 480ish pages will be able to maintain this level of wonder for me, but for now, I’m loving The Overstory, irrationally. Obviously.
This chapter also deals with the history of the chestnut blight in America, which you can learn about by watching this brief video:


And now, as promised, your first tree poem...


Wild Orchard

by William Carlos Williams

It is a broken country,
the rugged land is
green from end to end;
the autumn has not come.

Embanked above the orchard
the hillside is a wall
of motionless green trees,
the grass is green and red.

Five days the bare sky
has stood there day and night.
No bird, no sound.
Between the trees

and the early morning light.
The apple trees
are laden down with fruit.

Among blue leaves
the apples green and red
upon one tree stand out
most enshrined.

Still, ripe, heavy,
spherical and close,
they mark the hillside.
It is a formal grandeur,

a stateliness,
a signal of finality
and perfect ease.
Among the savage

aristocracy of rocks
one, risen as a tree,
has turned
from his repose.


Friday, June 14, 2019

All About Trees: Summer Reading Project, 2019

Readers of this blog may know that every summer, I like to have some sort of reading project. Last year, I read only novels by Michael Chabon, for better or worse. One year I read several short story collections and another, I tackled the Hilary Mantel series. My idea for this year's annual event started with a chunky novel on my to-read shelf, The Overstory by Richard Powers. The winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, it's "a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world." And from what I understand, it has much to do with trees. I bought the book and was very interested in it, but then it arrived and it was very long (500 pages) and so, because it was a hectic, non-summer time, I put it on the shelf. I'm quite excited about this read, which I know several of my friends have enjoyed.

Then I remembered that once I had really wanted to read a non-fiction title: The Hidden Life of Trees. So I bought that and suddenly, the All About Trees summer project was born. This book by Peter Wohlleben "makes the case that the forest is a social network," and claims "a walk in the woods will never be the same again."

After I decided on theme, things fell together. I already had an arc of Jessica Francis Kane's recent release, Rules for Visiting. This novel is a summer buzz book, about a middle-aged woman who is "more at home with plants than people" but decides to set out on a journey to reconnect with old friends. The book has lovely tree illustrations by Edward Carey, such as the one pictured here and so, more than qualifies for my project.

The final entry, Meetings with Remarkable Trees, I discovered online once I started looking around, and it's a gorgeous, illustrated book originally published in 1996. From the inside jacket: "With this astonishing collection of tree portraits, Thomas Pakenham has produced a new kind of tree book...The sixty trees are grouped according to their own strong personalities: Native, Travellers, Shrines, Fantasies and Survivors." And I think that last bit - the grouping titles - is what got me to buy the book. Not sure what a fantasy tree would be, but I intend to find out.

For those who have expressed interest in joining me on this reading quest, I'll read the books in the order listed above, with no particular timeframe other than to try to finish by Labor Day. If you need quantification, it's over 1200 pages of tree-filled goodness. I hope to post an update each Friday, starting next week, along with a tree poem or two. Join me! Spend some time embracing nature (at least, thinking about it) and learning about trees.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka