Women and Trees
I’m just home from the Women’s Arboriculture Conference in Parksville. I’d been invited to read from, and talk about, my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. It was an honour to hang around such an interesting group of women and to hear presentations on everything from the greening of our urban spaces (Kathleen Wolf) to the ethnobotany of our red and yellow cedars (Nancy Turner). I loved Tracy Ferreira’s presentation about her work with integrated pest management at the Butchart Gardens. In the 1970s, while a university student, I worked for four summers at the Gardens, mostly in the seed store, and I also worked weekends in winters, packaging seed. I have vivid memories of those summers — arriving early and walking the gardens while the dew was still on the grass or leaving late (the store stayed open until the last visitor left) as the deer were making their tentative way through the woods beyond the parking lot, looking up startled as my car headlights illuminated them.
In my writing life, I am often invited to give readings. I enjoy doing this. And over the years, I’ve noticed interesting things happening. Some readings are in a strictly literary context, at universities or bookstores. Generally the questions at the end of the reading focus on style or structure or influences. Sometimes the readings take place in the company of practitioners of other disciplines – musicians, visual artists, etc. And there’s a kind of cross-pollination that takes place. We realize that we might work in different media but that there are shared concerns, sources of inspiration, challenges or restraints or difficulties. At events like the Women’s Arboriculture Conference, the shared interests are not literary or even artistic but (in this case) arboreal. I loved that. My passion for trees comes from personal and cultural experience. I’m not a botanist or an arborist, though I know a little about these things. So it was fascinating for me to read to a group of people who had such different backgrounds – they were arborists, foresters, horticulturalists, landscape architects, garden designers, land planners, master gardeners, ethnobotanists, ecologists – but who were willing to listen to my explorations of trees and memory. And to continue the analogy of cross-pollination, I wonder what kind of interesting hybrid (site-specific?) might be the result of such a great conference?
At the end of my reading, I put out a tin of shortbread cookies flavoured with rosemary. I cut out the dough with my tree cutter – trees + rosemary for remembrance*… A number of women asked for the recipe so I told them I’d post it here. If you’re reading, thank you all for being such a warm and welcoming audience!
There’s a little story behind this recipe. I first had a version of these shortbread cookies at the home of friends in Vancouver. Their friend Alistair baked them as a Christmas offering and when I asked, he kindly gave me the recipe. The recipe in turn came from his mother who was from the Outer Hebrides. He asked me to use his mother’s name with the recipe and of course I was delighted to do that – recipes are carriers of history, after all, and every time I bake shortbread, I think of Alistair and his mother. But the rosemary is my own addition (I sometimes add chipotle chile to the original recipe, too, rather than rosemary, and I’ve also used other herbs: lemon thyme is particularly nice).
A Variation on Mrs. MacKay’s Shortbread
1 pound soft butter (the recipe doesn’t stipulate unsalted but I prefer it), left out to soften overnight
1 cup icing sugar
1 cup cornstarch
3 ½ cups flour (I use unbleached white)
¼ cup fresh rosemary leaves, chopped coarsely
Whip butter until creamy. Beat in icing sugar. (It’s easy to blow out a hand mixer doing this. I’ve ruined two over the years and finally treated myself to a Kitchenaid mixer…I wish I’d bought one 25 years ago.) Mix cornstarch and flour in a big bowl and then gradually add to butter mixture. Roll out on a floured board and cut into shapes. Bake in a 300 oven for about 25 – 30 minutes or until just lightly golden. Do not let them brown. (I have a confection oven and it takes a little less time: 22-23 minutes) This recipe makes a lot of cookies but the dough also freezes. Just thaw it and bring it to room temperature. Of course you can also cut the recipe in half.
*–In the words of poor Ophelia in Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,love, remember…” And Thomas More observed, “As for Rosemarine, I lett it runne all over the garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore, to friendship; whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our burial grounds.”