Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, edited by Josh MacIvor-Anderson. San Francisco, California: Outpost19, April 2017. 300 pages. $16.00, paper.
Recently, Portland, my home, was covered in a layer of ash and smoke from nearby wildfires in the forested Columbia Gorge. Wildfires are common in the west but this year’s intensely hot and dry summer has created conditions that mean, as we inched towards fall, it felt as if the whole of the west coast was burning. According to rumor, Portland had not experienced falling ash within the city limits since the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. During this summer’s days of smoke, as we huddled inside to avoid the hostile air, I couldn’t help but think of the trees, those once so solid creatures, now turned to papery ash, grayly floating and nothing like snow. With the fires still burning, we were already mourning the trees we had lost.
Our relationship with trees is a fraught one. We plant them and tend them. We eat their fruit. We breathe each other’s breath. We live in houses constructed from their bones. We eat off tables crafted from their sinew. Sometimes, we are crushed by their falling limbs, our houses and porches and power lines decimated when branches break in storms. We admire them, worship them, draw them, paint them, walk beneath them, speak to them. We make poetry on pages made from the pulp of their wood. Our lives are inextricably intertwined. The essays in Rooted explore the many facets of our complex interactions with our arboreal cousins. The authors featured here span regions but are all touched, in some way, by trees.
I was astonished by how familiar these arboreal experiences feel. I’ve always thought of myself as that strange sort of person who forms unusually strong attachments to trees but, as Josh MacIvor-Andersen writes in the book’s foreword: “Turns out I’m not that special. I’ve never met a person who didn’t have an interesting story thematically tangled in a tree.” The authors collected here each take this theme in their own direction. There are stories of childhood houses and newly found homes, of the trees that mirror the changes in our internal and external worlds, of the mutability of families and environment, of the wonders inherent in discovering the physical world that surrounds us.
In “The Sugaring Season,” Annie Bellerose writes about living and working at Barra in the woods of Vermont. As she details the intricate process of making maple syrup, she also describes how her experience with depression shifts with the seasons of the place, “I’m collecting moments—the rustle of snowflakes landing on my jacket, the refracted sparkle of the icicles on the blueberry bushes … These moments build into a sort of quiet contentment: not happiness, exactly, but a precarious state where the voice of depression can’t speak quite as loudly.” Here, trees become a physical challenge to the “surprisingly tangible” “hateful feeling inside.” Bellerose writes of the chores the trees and their sugaring season demand: “Something gets me out of bed for those. Something deep inside, instinctual, wants me to keep going, even if my body and mind resist the whole way.” The maples themselves are a kind of resistance, a presence demanding attention and inspiring a seasonal awareness, an acknowledgement of cycles and all the unpredictable changes they bring with their inevitable ends and beginnings.
Toti O’Brien’s “The Decadence of Grapefruit” is a celebration of bounty as she describes her attempts to give away the fruits of her tree: “My errands gave me great pleasure, making me feel like a sunny Santa Claus. A grapefruit fairy.” But even as this essay becomes a bemused romp through the joys of abundance, it describes the easy decimation of orchards, the way that loss reverberates through space and time: “What does a tree matter when thousand are gone in a night or two? When a pair of gutted hills is all that’s left under the sky?” O’Brien writes of her grandfather’s orchards, of their destruction when he died, and of how the compensation for that destruction paid for the house and the grapefruit tree she celebrates in her essay. Bounty and loss live side by side in this piece, turning over and over until you aren’t quite sure which sprung from which.
In “The Spar Tree,” the late Brian Doyle, whose words and perspective are much missed here in Portland, records the story of a former Oregon logger. In this piece, the spar tree is alternately a “stump looming in a sea / Of lesser green. Gray as bone, and shorn of everything,” or “the boss / Of the woods, the strongest of them all.” The spar tree is a challenge. It’s near to un-cut-downable. The spar tree is “a symbol of muscle and heroism and such, / But that’s silly.” The spar tree “kind of was the woods, you know what I mean here? / And you treated him with respect.” To this logger the woods is a consciousness, a living thing with its own particular will. You proceed with caution in the woods. You don’t mess with it or it could mess with you right back.
And in “Ten Takes on the Palm,” Paul Lisicky describes the “inexplicable sense of geographic safety” that he feels in places that are ecological echoes of the home where he grew up. We’ve all felt this, haven’t we? That primal feeling when some invisible part of ourselves relaxes into a landscape that feels familiar, the invisible part like a muscle we didn’t even know we kept tensed until we felt it unknotting. It’s in those particular landscapes that we find some kind of domestically mystical quality, like we’ve entered the bodily home of the soul. For Lisicky, those places have palms. Lisicky’s piece winds its way through the various natures of palms, from the “six in the ground outside the bayside bar” to the palms lined in rows wanting “to look like their siblings.” “Clip off the fronds,” Lisicky writes, “and what’s left is a decapitation, which is why we can’t bear to see them shorn after a hurricane. The palms look like us, simple as that.” This piece evokes that intense bodily connection between humans and trees as a way to explore our connections to place.
The connection between humans and trees, the ways we echo each other, the ways we love each other in similarity while we are, inevitably, inexplicable to each other in difference, is a common theme in many of these pieces. Rooted is a beautiful book. Together, these essays create a complex ecosystem, a collection of thought and feeling that centers around the mysteriously familiar arboreal creatures we share our landscapes with. In our particular moment, in this season of ecological disaster, in this future of ecological uncertainty, we desperately need more books like Rooted. We need books that create spaces for us to celebrate and mourn, interrogate and reflect on, the ways we intertwine with the life of our world.
Miranda Schmidt’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, The Collagist, Phoebe, Luna Station Quarterly, and other journals. Miranda grew up in the Midwest and now lives with her partner and two cats in Portland, Oregon, where she edits the Sun Star Review, teaches at Portland Community College, and occasionally blogs about books at mirandaschmidt.com. A graduate of the University of Washington’s MFA program and a 2017 Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow, Miranda recently completed a novel about haunting and is currently at work on a project inspired by shapeshifting fairy tales.