My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but not so interesting as looking.
What does it mean to see something, to learn to really look? I have colleagues who do this with stones, who can look at something that would be utterly overlooked by most people– a loose tumulus of rocks beside a road, say, or the exposed side of a hill– and name the minerals, put together the pieces of geological history on display, and tell the stories of the stones. Other people can do this with clouds, perhaps, or stars, with texts on a page or paintings or the way people speak or interact. Is this part of what education is, simply extending one’s knowledge so that new aspects of the world become interpretable? This is likely where the humility of education comes in: the realization that however much one knows or sees, it is only an incredibly small sliver of the overall picture, and sight can go so much deeper in so many different directions.
But there’s an art to simply looking and seeing as well, something that complements and yet remains distinct from simply having knowledge. Something that moves observation closer to aesthetics and philosophy than pure objectivity. The prose of Nancy Hugo and the photography of Robert Llewellyn combine in this book to do this with trees.
They succeed extraordinarily. This is quite simply a stunning book. It opens up a new world, but it does this for a world that we’ve lived alongside, without seeing, for our entire lives. Hugo and Llewellyn examine the properties of ten species of trees common to America: oak, maple, tulip popular, white pine, and others. Most people– myself included– know and love trees in a general way. But the images and text in this work reveal that even the most common trees are almost utterly unknown. On some level I’m sure I knew that any plant producing seeds must have flowers (or cones, on evergreens), but who has seen the flowers of a maple or an oak? But there they are, hidden in the upper branches or the unfolding leaves of spring, captured in this book and shown for the delicate and alien things they are, looking as though they belonged on the waving fronds of some undersea creatures rather than the limbs of trees along my street.
To read this book is to see trees for the first time. I am stunned and stirred awake. To see these forms that seem so staid and unmoving, the background to our daily lives and the shade to our fortunate streets, as dynamic, changing, sexual organisms. People who think Groot in the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie is cool have no idea how alive and alien these common trees really are, from the antenna-like flowers of the red maple to the dangling tendrils of the oak male catkins.
You think there are aspects of the world you have a pretty good handle on, things that you can identify and then safely ignore for most of your life. It’s terrifying and refreshing to realize how much life and newness there is in the world around you. And then you’re struck– how much else am I missing? Not simply in the living, green world around me or taking place under my nose in the garden, but what about in the faces of my family, or the unread texts on pages, or a thousand other everyday occurrences?
The greater part of the phenomena of Nature . . . are concealed from us all our lives. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate, and not a grain more. . . . A man sees only what concerns him.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a book of postcards. It’s not in actuality a book of physical postcards (though that might be a fantastic manifestation of this work). But that’s what it feels like: amazing images with just enough explicatory prose to whet one’s appetite. Pakenham traveled the world photographing the most remarkable trees from Asia, North America, Africa, Australia, and Europe. Unfortunately, he did not write a book about it. He published a book of postcards instead. Gorgeous postcards, in a huge, hardcover coffee table book. But postcards, nonetheless.
Remarkable Trees of the World is a follow-up to Pakenham’s earlier work that featured sixty remarkable living trees found throughout Britain and Ireland. I’m still very interested in reading that book. Perhaps a constrained focus on the lingering leviathans of one particular corner of the world would allow Pakenham to go deeper than he does in this work.
The trees here are indeed remarkable. There are again sixty, divided into delightfully non-botanical categories such as Giants, Dwarfs, Methuselahs, and Dreams. Usually one particular tree of either aesthetic or historic significance is featured for each entry—such as the grove of oldest trees in the world, the largest living tree in the world, or a tree said to have been grown from a cutting of the original tree under which the Buddha obtained enlightenment. Others are simply examples of broader categories: particularly impressive baobabs, for instance, or Australian mountain ash or examples of bonsai. Any one of the sixty trees Pakenham examines would be worth at least a chapter on its own. Many certainly merit a book in their own right.
But their stories aren’t to be found here. Pakenham’s book is a beautiful work that gives hints and glimmers of the breathtaking scope of these specimens. We get a glimpse of their physical forms through Pakenham’s excellent photographs, and we get a brief taste of the legends or histories that have grown up around them in his brief prose. Pakenham admittedly shies away from any extensive botanical explication, though the book is not the worse for it.
Ironically though, reading the work feels like a whirlwind tour of those organisms that most embody place, fixity, and rootedness. Maybe I simply read it too fast (though you’re driven to turn the page to catch sight of the next forest giant). I felt I was racing through a forest when I should have been lingering in a garden.
If you are passionate about trees, this book is worth your time for the images alone. You’ve probably read about some of these specimens before, but you’ve never seen them through the thoughtful and elegant eye of Pakenham’s camera. Their stories aren’t here though. Here are frightening, awe-inspiring, and terribly pleasing glimpses alone.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is an idea that if you know something well enough—if you spend some time learning about it and seeing all of its internal and external connections—you cannot help but loving it. I’m not entirely sure this is true, though I’d like to believe it is. I think it is an important aspect of environmentalism and likely the reason why so many scientists become conservationists: sometimes it is only by careful and deliberate study that the inherent value of an organism or system becomes apparent.
I also think this is the point of good nature writing: making the reader take a long look at something. Really study it. Get to know deeply. By doing so, rational analysis becomes something more: it becomes a form of art, of contemplation, maybe even a form of worship. It certainly can become a form of excellent literature and, in the case of this book, an opportunity for combining knowledge, connection, and empathy.
Trees fascinate me. They are ubiquitous and prosaic, and yet they’re also ancient, silent, and somehow unknowable. Have you ever stopped and simply considered how large they are? How a single specimen can tower over your home physically and cast its sheltering shade over your entire life temporally? And yet, how much do most of us really know about them? What’s going on inside the bark and beneath the soil? What unseen networks do they play a role within?
I write about trees. I titled my first collection of short stories after them. And for a long time I’ve been looking for a book that captures what they are and more importantly teaches me things about them that I didn’t know. This book, by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady, went a long way toward filling that tree-shaped hole in my head I’ve been walking around with. Grady, a Canadian science writer, and Suzuki, a zoologist, academic, and environmentalist, team up to do something that at first blush appears fairly simple: they want to write the life story of a single tree, in particular a Douglas-fir growing outside a British Columbian cabin retreat.
Of course it’s not that simple. Trying to focus on one aspect of nature—let alone a single tree—is like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. Grady and Suzuki use the life cycle of a single Douglas-fir, from germination to death, as a lens to explore trees in general, the zoology and botany of British Columbia, and the importance of forests throughout the world. Yet the single tree itself functions effectively as a unifying thread throughout the book, and of course along the way we get a wealth of information about the evolution, reproduction, growth, morphology, taxonomy, and mystery of trees.
Tree, A Life Story is a wealth of information, yet it is consistently readable and compelling. As with any good nature book, we learn the object itself and we also learn the impossibility of seeing the object alone or isolated. We get a glimpse of the essential connectivity of trees with each other, with wildlife and fungi, and with other plants. What was most surprising to me—apart from the new facts I picked up, like the fact that scientists are still not quite sure they have a handle on how trees pull water and nutrients up hundreds of feet into the air from roots to canopy—was the way the tree itself became a character of this story. With trees, the authors explain, there is no definite moment of death. A tree’s life is in many ways a long dying. But reading the final acts of this particular tree’s life, I found myself—in a twist on much conservationist writing that witnesses to the loss of entire species or habitats—mourning an individual. Trees are monuments, they’re like rooted ships sailing not through space but through time. And we so often only see still images of their lives. To see the whole story spelled out from beginning to end was quite wonderful and surprisingly moving.
Trees still fascinate me. After reading this book I know them a little better. I also know (as with so much) that to truly understand them I’d need to devote a career to their study. But every little bit helps. Now maybe I love them a little better as well.
“The Stone Oaks” was my third publication in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (issue #112, in January of 2013). My wife is a huge Robin McKinley fan, and she (my wife) keeps pushing me to write stronger female characters into my stories (and, truth be told, if fiction is supposed to reflect life, and if my fiction is supposed to reflect my life, then– yes– my stories should be filled with very strong female characters).
So this story has one. I like Claire. I also like trees, nuns, and knights. I put them all together (with one additional element) in “The Stone Oaks.” The trees are exaggerated versions of actual trees that filled a park we used to go to in Mississippi. A friend recently asked me what the trees in this story symbolized. I had to think about that, but if forced I’d probably say something like, “They represent any time we’re given a job we don’t understand but try to do obediently and well. And they represent the unexpected fruit such labors may bring.”
I’m “working on” a follow-up to this piece, but I’m also working on a dissertation, so we’ll see.
You can read about Claire and her trees here.