11 Books and their 11 spectacular trees

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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.

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