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They’re Slow, but One Tree Leads to Another!

Doug's mini-reviews of books about trees.

It is an understatement to say my surprise was overwhelming as a crowd of related books showed up after reading Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning Overstory. Every time I finished one volume, another with links to Powers’ work begged to be read. Not merely on the merit of an author’s adept writing, or striking subject matter, but by a certain inter-connectivity I couldn’t ignore. As Dr. Suzanne Simard might say, the wood-wide-web is speaking, are you listening? (see Hasan Chowdhury’s column). It was a good excuse to take a break from writing reviews. There seemed to be something bigger brewing, and I needed to pay attention. No mystery here, this is a passion. So, I’ll give you a peek, and a link, and leave it to you.

As mentioned, Richard Powers’ novel Overstory was the entrée. It delighted, horrified, rang all my Thoreau-ish bells and snapped me to attention. Next, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland fell into my hands. The intertextual adventure had begun. Underland is like a non-fiction key to Powers’ book, and it took me to places most of us will never have a chance to visit. Characters in the novel stepped into real life with MacFarlane as tour guide par excellence.

Then, it made perfect sense to visit Wohlleben in the German forest. Peter the Forester schooled me with his Hidden Life of Trees. Although I’ve been an amateur arborist for fifteen years—he welcomed me back to the classroom. The first thing I wondered after reading Hidden Life: has anyone among our Sarasota City Managers read Peter Wohlleben’s book? This might be the opportune moment.

One of the most beautiful recent books on trees is Jonathan Drori’s Around the World in 80 Trees. The broader view it offers is edifying since we gardeners tend to be habitat-specific in our knowledge base. Next, David George Haskell’s spellbinding The Songs of Trees, meets a need for those of us who enjoy adventures abroad, satisfying connective literary roots, and significant social contexts. Simultaneously, once again at Macfarlane’s suggestion, I had to imbibe the Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala. Mythology has a way of rejuvenating my perception of “deep-time,” as Macfarlane calls it, as well as restoring the centrality of trees in the real biome, and the imaginative.

During one recent weekend, I was left alone and finished three books that generated audible wows! No one noticed except the cat. But I want to include them here: The Linden Tree, is by an Argentinian author of whom I had no previous knowledge. César Aira, is a master of subtlety in his creative memoir where the pivotal metaphor of his father’s medicinal tree taught me new things about Lindens, and about writing. The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula Le Guin, was a Hugo Award Winner in 1972. It is a stirring work that speaks to the issues of our age half a century after its release. Casting Deep Shade is the posthumous work of the beloved poet, C. D. Wright, late partner of Forest Gander. As Ben Lerner says in his foreword, “The Beech Has To Do With Thresholds,” and page after page of her poems honor that one species of tree. “It is both C.D.’s book and a loving tribute to her.” The photographs by Denny Moers enhances the reader’s experience as one ambles in the woods with the poet. And, notably, the book is dedicated to William S. and Paula S. Merwin. This brings us to the end of my brief lines about a few of the books which deeply matter to me this year. I hope at least one may intrigue you enough to peruse it. A link to the bibliography I’m collecting follows. No worries, it’s not academic, and certainly nowhere near exhaustive. The list contains books that have recently come to my attention, and some I couldn’t resist placing on my tasting menu for the near future. I see this collection as a living network—and, rather than fading out with Muir and Thoreau, it displays the work of a vital, growing community of forest scientists and learned sources of tree lore. My apologies to poetry lovers, very few poets appear, but many remarkable tree poems worth reading can easily be found online. Included are those who take the next step, who have become what might be called literary arborists. I’m sure I’ve left out many deserving an entry. Finally, writings about the human experience of forests, and the connection to health, healing and mindfulness are available. A few are listed, but I do not claim to be well-informed regarding this aspect of sylvan/human relations. The link follows for the list. Feel free to download:

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