Friday, July 26, 2019

Summer of Trees: Hiatus and a Louise Erdrich poem

This week got away from me and although I've been reading The Overstory (239 pages in now), I won't be giving an update this week. Instead, enjoy this lovely poem, which should hold you over quite nicely until next Friday, when I expect to have finished the novel.

I Was Sleeping Where the Black Oaks Move

by Louise Erdrich
We watched from the house
as the river grew, helpless
and terrible in its unfamiliar body.   
Wrestling everything into it,
the water wrapped around trees
until their life-hold was broken.
They went down, one by one,
and the river dragged off their covering.

Nests of the herons, roots washed to bones,   
snags of soaked bark on the shoreline:   
a whole forest pulled through the teeth   
of the spillway. Trees surfacing
singly, where the river poured off
into arteries for fields below the reservation.

When at last it was over, the long removal,   
they had all become the same dry wood.   
We walked among them, the branches   
whitening in the raw sun.
Above us drifted herons,
alone, hoarse-voiced, broken,
settling their beaks among the hollows.
Grandpa said, These are the ghosts of the tree people   
moving among us, unable to take their rest. 

Sometimes now, we dream our way back to the heron dance.   
Their long wings are bending the air   
into circles through which they fall.   
They rise again in shifting wheels.   
How long must we live in the broken figures   
their necks make, narrowing the sky.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Summer of Tree Books: The Overstory update

Here’s the trouble I’m having with The Overstory (which isn’t really much of a trouble at all): it isn’t a fast read. Each story/chapter feels like a place to stop and think, and I also take breaks while reading to look up facts, and words I don’t know, and things about which I’m now interested. After a chapter, I usually want to stop for a while and digest. Not after all of the chapters, perhaps; some are quite short. But the long ones, like that first chapter that I gushed about—some of the long ones feel complete and satisfactory, all on their own.
One such chapter is “Patricia Westerford,” which, basically, tells the entire life story of the so-named character. She’s a misfit in some ways, and her father eschews traditional school for her, choosing to take her into the “woodlands world” and teach her things about nature instead. This chapter is full of interesting tree facts:

“If you carved your name four feet high in the bark of a beech tree, how high would it be after half a century?

She loves the answer to that last one: Four feet. Still four feet. Always four feet, however high the beech tree grows. She’ll love that answer still, half a century later.”


“He tells her how the word beech becomes the word book, in language after language.”
Also, there are wonderful, wise sentences I want to read again and again:
“As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.”
“There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last and every one of them keeps making things.”

And the beauty of some of these isn’t merely in the words, which are lovely, but in the way that each piece of this chapter ties back to and cooperates with everything else, much as the forest is described here:

“Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do leaves on a single tree.”

There is a lovely, layering effect happening with this novel, much like the rings of a tree, as I can feel everything connecting and growing, one chapter to the next. Anyway, it’s quite remarkable. And I’m chagrined to admit that Patricia Westerford’s chapter was another that made me cry at the end, because of how good it was.

Also…I’m keeping a running list of the vocabulary that sends me to my phone for definitions while reading. For most, I was able to get a contextual gist, but I looked them up anyway. I'll share a couple of them here, in lieu of a tree poem this week.

Understory: a layer of vegetation beneath the main canopy of a forest.

Pleach: entwine or interlace (tree branches) to form a hedge or provide cover for an outdoor walkway, such as this photo.
This last definition reminded me that I had seen something online recently, about how newlyweds used to plant sycamores on either side of a walkway, so they could grow together. Like this:
Lastly, quite suddenly the other day it occurred to me that the title of my first novel, The Qualities of Wood, came from a metaphor, about looking closely at the grains and growth pattern of wood to ascertain its qualities, much as you look closely inside someone to try to know them better. And remembering those inspirations from many years ago is now enriching my reading of The Overstory as well.
I'll have some time on airplanes this coming week, and expect to make great progress on the book, and will no doubt have something to say again next week.

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.
"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