11 Books and their 11 spectacular trees


From Italo Calvino’s Oaks to Arundhati Roy’s Mangosteens, trees have been the stuff of inspiration for as long as we’ve told stories

The year after I graduated college, I was broke. Hungry broke. So broke that I didn’t need to set an alarm clock, because my growling stomach would wake me up every morning at seven. I was living in the last house at the dead-end of a dirt road at the top of a mountain in southern Vermont, surrounded by forest, and every morning I’d get up, pour myself a small bowl of Cheerios, and read. And look at the trees. And then read some more.

That fall, I put cereal on the table by working as a woodcutter. For ten dollars an hour, I’d swing a maul, over and again, splitting piles of firewood for the winter — oak, hickory, birch, ash, locust, beech — and then I’d go home to my books. I read most of Shakespeare’s plays that year, and Goethe’s Faust, and Nietzsche’s collected works. I dove into Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, and I read and reread Invisible Man. It was the year I discovered Rebecca Solnit and reacquainted myself with Willa Cather. When I got paid, I’d go to the used bookstore, pick up a few titles, and then return home to read and contemplate the trees.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that my own book, This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent (forthcoming in 2018), is about trees and what happened when certain nineteenth-century Americans, skeptical about the social and environmental costs of capitalist progress, looked out at them. I spent ten years reading everything about trees and culture that I could; yet what I read is only a fraction of what’s out there — even in English. It seems that humans have never tired of writing about the sylvan world.

Here are a few of those books, and a handful of the trees I discovered, a highly idiosyncratic list, that have helped to define my life. Maybe some of them will guide you through your inner forest.

Tree: Wolf Willow
Book: Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier, by Wallace Stegner

Stegner moved frequently as a child, but he spent his boyhood in southern Sasketchewan on what was the last North American frontier. His book begins when the middle-aged Stegner returns, for the first time, to his hometown, only to find it utterly strange, until he crushes a few leaves of the scrubby, silver-leafed wolf willow, and brings it to his nose. What ensues is a Proustian remembrance that blends fiction, lightly fictionalized memoir, history, and philosophy of history — “a librarian’s nightmare,” Stegner called it — every page of which is bewitching.

Read More