Tree Books

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In 2008, I helped set up an Idaho Master Forest Stewards program in northern Idaho through the University of Idaho Extension Forestry program under professor Chris Schnepf. Since 2009, I’ve served as a volunteer in the program, primarily writing articles and occasionally serving on panels about our family’s stewardship forest in northern Idaho. If you are familiar with a master gardener program, the master forestry program is similar. It’s based on peers educating peers through a wide range of volunteer activities from visiting forests, connecting landowners to forestry professionals, and education. I’ve used my readings and training about forestry and peer-to-peer education models–plus continuing education requirements–as a teacher of English Composition at the college level. I've introduced many of the books discussed below in my college classroom, particularly Lauret Savoy's Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape.

Because people know that I love trees, they often ask me to recommend books about trees. What follows are a couple of recommendations.

Byl, Christine. Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (Beacon Press).

Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most of us do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal “traildog” maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from “the real world” before going on to graduate school. She came to find out that work in the woods on a trail crew was more demanding, more rewarding—more real—than she ever imagined.

Gill, Charlotte. Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe (Greystone Books). The first chapter is available, here.

Eating Dirt is an extended postcard from the cut blocks—a vivid portrayal of one woman’s life planting trees. This literary journey follows tree planters through a year on the job, through bugs and bears, remote camps and logging towns. It offers a glimpse into the unique subculture of those who work at one of the dirtiest jobs left on earth among the world’s last giant trees. The story also traces the seasons of the forest and the remarkable life cycles of trees.

Haskell, David George. The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (Viking). Haskell is one of the best people writing on trees. I highly recommend his work. Through The Songs of Trees, we travel the globe, listening. To listen, we must learn. Haskell includes contemplative practice in his teaching and writing, and he teaches us how to pay attention. For example, in the chapter on “Sabal Palm,” on “a barrier island off the U.S. coast in Georgia,” we hear sand:

The sand on the seaward edge of the dune banked at a sharp angle, running to the beach in one sweep from just below the dune’s peak. Sitting close, I heard this face whisper, a sibilant hesitation, only audible when the seethe of distant wavelets quieted for a few moments. The sounds came from liquefied sand, patches of the slope that suddenly lost their grip and turned, in an instant, to fluid from granular solid. The sand hissed as it raced down the slope in narrow chutes.

The Songs of Trees take us to the Amazon, to the East Coast of the United States, to Japan, to Scotland, and elsewhere. Haskell is an astonishing literary nature writer, and The Songs of Trees is poetic and lyrical, engaging our need for images and story while grounding us with facts and science.

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Merwin, W.S. Unchopping a Tree. Illustrations by Liz Ward. (Trinity University Press.) This is a gorgeous poetic essay that answers Merwin’s question: “How do you put back together a tree that’s been felled?” It’s a mediation on “unchopping” trees as well as creativity. How do you write what has been undone? Merwin teaches us how.

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MacIvor-Andersen, Josh, Editor. Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction (Outpost 19).

In this collection, we meet a boy who ate a tree to gain access to the Guiness Book of World Records, a tree-tethered sniper at a pot farm in California, a man who was killed by a fallen limb in Central Park, and lots of writers, both established and emerging, whose intimate connections to trees (and their losses) have found a collective home in the pulped pages of recycled forest.

Full disclosure: I have an essay, “The Line of No Trees,” included in the anthology. Bill McKibben’s introduction is excellent. Contributors include many contemporary writer-teachers: Lia Purpura, Renée E. D’Aoust, Angela Pelster, Jacqueline Doyle, Paul Lisicky, and others.

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Nisbet, Jack. Ancient Places: People and Landscape in the Emerging Northwest(Sasquatch Books). For readers interested in tree history, Jack Nisbet’s books about naturalist David Douglass are must reads. Sources of the River brought Hudson’s Bay Company explorer David Thompson epic travels, which predates Lewis & Clark, into a contemporary focus. fAncient Places: People and the Landscape in the Emerging Northwest has a wider range of subjects with fascinating essays on the Inland Northwest. Nisbet helps us trace natural history in our current time suggesting, “We are all travelers, really.”

Pelster, Angela. Limber (Sarabande Books). This is a startling collection of often lyric essays. (Consider reading it along with Byl’s Dirt Work and Gill’s Eating Dirt.) When I reviewed Limber for the journal Rain Taxi, I wrote this:

In Pelster’s essay collection Limber, she expresses an almost religious reverence for the ways that trees root and grow, inhabiting her conscious and subconscious, and revealing deeper meanings rewarded to those willing to sit and be—with trees. Here trees grow in wombs and hearts, frogs sit in their branches, and trees also wound young boys.

Savoy, Lauret. Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint Press). This is not specifically a tree book. Savoy's exploration of her family heritage, travels across North America, and discussion of land and race intertwined in history are powerful reminders of how the history of the American landscape, and the people who inhabit it, is still unfolding. I highly recommend this book.

A previous version of this article was first published by Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.