Sarabande Books, 2014
“To the great tree-loving fraternity we belong. We love trees with universal and unfeigned love, and all things that do grow under them or around them – the whole leaf and root tribe.”
― Henry Ward Beecher
When it comes to wide-ranging framing devices, it’s always practical to look to the building blocks of the natural world: elements, weather, the birds of the air and the beasts of the field; all things spring wherefrom and such. And along those lines you can’t go too wrong with trees—“trees of life” having been relational allegories of choice throughout most cultures’ mythology, the Bible, and Charles Darwin, to name just a few sources. Trees as metaphors, trees as real objects, trees as ideal states of being—they’re pretty unobjectionable. So the question becomes, how do you use the fact of them in a dynamic way?
Angela Pelster has put together a series of essays, loosely grouped around the subject of trees, in her recent collection, Limber. It’s a fine idea, essays that relate to each other from a central concept much in the same way that trees branch up and out from a root system, and in the way that we are connected to nature—and nature is connected to us—in forms both massive and tenuous. Pelster’s essays range from tales of actual trees—“The Loneliest Tree in the World,” austere in the Sahara; the tremendous Moreton Bay figs of Australia; or the limber pines of the book’s title, which grip rock faces by slotting their roots into cracks—to highly personal essays in which people take center stage, and the trees are incidental, such as “Portrait of a Mango,” a meditation that encompasses Vermeer, the color yellow, and her connection to her mother.
Nature, predictably, has a starring role in many pieces, and these are some of the book’s strongest. Pelster knows how to showcase the natural world in all its hot and heavy glory:
It was the kind of place with redwoods large enough to drive a van through, and where families of six would try to hold hands around a trunk but couldn’t. Everything smelled of rotting plants, of bursting spores and red dirt and moss. Mushrooms, big enough to sit on, bloomed from the sides of trees and the air was so wet you could suck the rain from it with your lips.
In fact, Limber is strongest when it’s engaging straight on with the forces of the world, spores and wind and heartwood—the strangely alchemical substance at the core of a tree. Decay, as it should, has a certain pride of place in the collection, and as she points out, “Sometimes rot is gracious.”
As soon as an animal’s heart stops beating, the chemicals in its body change and so its pH levels change and so its cells lose their structural integrity. They sway and crash like an old house in the wind. Cellular enzymes spill free from the wreckage and begin to eat away at the other cells and tissues, releasing more enzymes, more crashing, more destruction. Scientists call this autolysis: self-digestion.
There are engaging meditations on mining, evolution, Bartholomäus Traubeck’s tree ring music, and a wonderfully unexpected turn on nuclear fallout in Russia; also some pieces that make you wonder why, exactly, they were included. An essay about a boy in a group home, presumably where Pelster once worked, is moving but doesn’t seem to quite fit, and another, “Inosculation,” feels like a stand-along short story. She covers a lot of ground here—a lot of forest. And while there are some compelling overriding themes, such as her interrogation of the religion she was raised with, which she clearly both values and questions, and her shifting thoughts on fate, the center doesn’t always hold. If we’re going to keep on with the metaphor, the book is all branches and no trunk; it’s often a struggle to keep in mind that this is a themed set of essays.
At the same time, the strongest pieces resonate. And if a reader is obliging enough to look at the collection as an ongoing inquiry into the constantly shifting places that nature, man, and God occupy, the book takes on a certain curious breadth. Pelster explains:
I collect the signs like a doctor tapping on a patient’s body, looking into ears, pressing on a spine, drawing blood from the unseen places. It is difficult to know when one of these will come to something, when some bit of evidence will be made luminous in the beautiful light, when the world will bend and let slide a little secret from its corner.
Not all the signs reveal what she’s aiming for. But many of the essays are quite beautiful, and spark some interesting trains of thought. Pelster is a fine writer, and a tighter collection might have thrown her thoughts into sharper relief.
Some books, like wines, want pairing, and I’d love to see Limber—with its lovely rorschach-y tree drawings that separate each chapter—matched up with Thomas Pakenham’s Meetings with Remarkable Trees, a marvelous photo-illustration-essay collection that celebrates the things themselves, and their ineffable personalities. Even on its own, though, Limber is an often quirky, sometimes profound ramble through some interesting and diverse woods. Not to drag out the metaphor too far, that is. As Pelster notes,
[…] but who needs another tree metaphor about change and weathering the storms and remaining beautiful through it all? A tree is not a metaphor. A tree is a tree, and we are both only one strong wind away from falling.