Tree Wisdom

Jun 05 2017 Published by under Gardening For Life

Happily, I've increased my Daily Minimum Intake of printed matter in the past few years in the form of books. I've been reading real books, not ebooks, though for a time I did do a lot of ebook reading too.

I liked a lot of things about ebooks. I liked the search feature of ebooks, allowing me to easily find a phrase - very helpful at book club discussions. While reading, if I came across something I wanted to understand a little more deeply, why, the googles were right there in my hands! (Though this often led me astray and away from the book itself.) I loved the immediacy of ebooks. Did the NYT Book Review develop in me a sudden hankering for Yu Hua's The Seventh Day?  Very well, I shall possess it in this moment of hot desire! Naturally this wanton pursuit of books resulted in reading three books at once, not finishing a book or three, and sometimes being quite shocked when the Visa bill arrived.*

But ultimately I found ebooks unsatisfying. I grew up with books made of trees, held in the hands, pages grasped between thumb and forefinger and turned one by one, the heft of a book in hands or on the lap a visceral sensation, the sense of where one was in the story seen and felt by the thickness of pages in the left hand versus the right. I have always had an ability to locate a remembered passage in a book because of this visual-tactile experience: it was on the upper right hand side of the page, in the middle of a large blocky paragraph, about a third of the way through the book... The search function of ebooks compensates in a technical way for the loss of this visual-tactile information and is no doubt more efficient but less emotionally satisfying than the thrill I experience each time I find what I want right there on the page, right there in the book, where my brain and body knows and feels it should be. There is no way to grab hold of an ebook they aren't even flat, they are dimensionless. You cannot use spatial or tactile information to remember anything about an ebook reading experience, and for me this ultimately diminishes the reading experience.

And I do not wish for any more of diminishment than that which life will bring to each of us in due course. (Each of us, that is, capable of registering growth between our selves at first grade and at adulthood.)

How we diminish, thankful for
comfort, unevent, kindness,
sunlight on October-orange maple leaves.
How we mature, tired of romancing pain.

                                   Jeff Mann, poet, essayist, teacher
  The Failed Romantic Seduces A Blueberry Bar
in A Romantic Mann, Lethe Press, 2013

Several of my books (e- or tree) in the past year have featured trees as a metaphor, main subject, or recurring topic. The Seventh Day, referenced above, is a fascinating fable of the afterlife of the world's poor featuring trees and tree imagery. What happens when you cannot afford cremation or burial, when you have no one to mourn you? In a particularly affecting section, a tree's broad leaves provide a resting place to babies who were abandoned as medical waste. This powerfully imaginative tale renders the interconnections between economic violence, sexual violence, and environmental devastation in a most unforgettable way that kept me reading late into the night.

I thoroughly enjoyed Lab Girl for many reasons. Hope Jahren speaks with passion about the life and love she has devoted to science, and what science has given back to her. She conveys the wonders of trees and the challenges of sciencing while female, using a direct and humorous manner that startled, shocked, and delighted this reader. Lab Girl is, of course, a memoir, not a novel, but it reads like a jolly picaresque tale. It is a kind of Wissenschaftlerroman, if I may be allowed to coin a new (usage) of a word. There is of course the bildungsroman (novel of formation), the Künstlerroman (artist's novel), and the Erziehungsroman (educational novel). But as far as I can tell, when the words "roman" and "Wissenschaftler" are linked in German, it means science fiction. I intend Wissenschaftlerroman here to mean the story of an individual's growth from childhood to maturity wherein she finds her calling in science, and develops mastery of her craft. It is true what she says - Hope Jahren sure can write.

Right now I am reading The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. The former was recommended to me by a friend, a great plants-woman. I picked it up during a delirious visit to Politics & Prose in DC, read a few pages, and was enthralled. It is a magical tale of the real life of trees. One is hardly prepared for such outlandish reports as are gathered in this book of science, unless one was raised on a diet of the very best unadulterated Grimm's and A Thousand and One Nights. Dillard asks, "What if I fell in a forest? Would a tree hear?" Wohlleben's book is in some ways an extended meditation on Dillard's reversal of the traditional koan. The scale of life for trees, so much radically longer than ours, makes of us mayflies. We cut down an old tree and walk away and in another lifetime someone else discovers that nearby trees are keeping the roots of that cut-down tree alive. Why? We are only beginning to know to ask the question.

I'd known of Dillard's book for a long time but put off reading it. I had no idea how rapturous it is. I read small doses and meditate on it. People say "I'm not religious but I am spiritual." I envy them. Long ago I lost my childhood Roman Catholic belief; spiritualism never took its place. On high holy days at church we processed, and incense was burned, and I felt the presence of God; and when we were still allowed to have May Crowning we sang Glorious Mother, from high heaven/Down upon thy children gaze/Gathered in thy own loved season/Thee to bless and thee to praise!/See Sweet Mary, on thy altar/Bloom the fairest buds of May/O may we Earth's sons and daughters/Grow by grace as pure as they - then we were all part of the holy and the beauty and the grace.  Then came a cranky, vitriolic priest who disliked the flower-filled woman-centered Marian worship, declared it pagan and unfit for proper Catholics, and banned it shortly after arrival in our little coal-mining town.

I have found much solace in recent years in gardening. I have taken a Tree Tenders course, and become more active with my township's Shade Tree Commission. I have no illusions that caring for my tiny patch of soil, or planting trees in my local neighborhood, is anything but bailing a sinking ship with a teaspoon, and yet if we don't each wield our own teaspoon the best we can, what's the point of even being here. Annie Dillard reminds me that there is great joy in this world, she reminds me to be in the present, to face upstream in the creek at the great onrush of light and now, that there is a tree with the lights in it. " and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there." I am trying to be here. I did see the tree with the lights in it once. I try to remember to look close, look closer, look as closely as I can, pay attention to now, to remember that beauty and grace are being performed all around me, to at least do the least I can do.

O may we Earth's sons and daughters grow by grace as pure as they.

*To be honest, the fault lies not in our ebooks, but in myself. For when I walk into a bookstore, I walk out with a heavy bag, my TBR list unfurls  beyond my 127th year, and shock is duly feigned when the Visa bill arrives. If I had a House, my sigil would sport a book and the letters "TBR". Also, a tree.


4 responses so far

  • eeke says:

    I read Annie Dillard's first book, "the Living". More than 20 years ago, so all I remember was that the writing was brilliant and beautiful. I should read more of her stuff.

    And for funsies, since you speak of trees, is the tree that owns itself:

  • chall says:

    Lvoely post! I have a similar affection for tree books, and especially for the reason that I like to have the overview of two pages at the same time since I remember the passages I love more vividly when I know where on the page they are. I think that is also why I still print articles to read if they seem to be something I will use later on. I need the visual "in front of me"

    That said, the easy of reading book1 and then buying book 2 instantly - not to mention being able to bring a lot of books with me when travelling have made me have a lot of books on my ereader. I feel a little sad about spending so much money on something that I can't give away after reading (I usually give away about a third of the books I've purchased since I can't keep a big collection) but kindle doesn't allow this. Nor can I lend them to friends. Both things I really dislike. If only the digital book could be "given away to one person" or sold second hand.....

    (I wrote a short piece on books and summer feelings to me if you want to read: )