11 years ago this month I was working on the first edits of my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. It was a book I’d written over five years, trying to gather together significant trees in my life as memory markers, mnemonics. I’d intended it to be a memoir, and it is; but it strays a little from the usual interpretation of the genre, or at least as I understood it to be then. It was as much a natural history, a cultural history, as it was–is–a personal history. Readers and reviewers were mostly generous and the book was shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize. I was invited to do some really wonderful events, including a presentation at a gathering of women arborists. And then, as happens, the book slipped quietly out of sight. In the ten years that followed, a whole lot of books about trees were published and I read many of them, finding in them a familiar and congenial world.
This morning Angie and Karna were packing to leave after spending 10 days with us over the Christmas holiday. We were snowed in, sort of, and spent a lot of time eating large meals, venturing out once or twice to shop (pulling groceries up the driveway on a toboggan), and talking by the fire. The power was out for a day and a half which made for some interesting adjustments. (We have a well and when the water tank is empty, we have to be creative about water.) Angie and her dad finished putting together the loom they’d designed together by phone and which John had mostly constructed in readiness for Christmas. (Angie taught herself to weave during the pandemic, making herself a small loom and weaving some beautiful small landscape tapestries on it. She wants to try some bigger projects.) And when they were almost ready to drive away, Angie said she’d like to give me my birthday gift early: Around the World in 80 Trees, by Jonathan Drori, illustrated by Lucille Clerc. I can tell just by opening it randomly that I will love it.
3 days into the new year has me thoughtful about what I’ve done as a writer and what I haven’t. I think Mnemonic is the most challenging book I’ve written in that I went in directions I didn’t expect to go, wrote about my relationships with trees, with the past, with who I was and wasn’t, and this morning I took out a copy, dusted it off, and put on the table with my new gift. They look like good companions, don’t they? And they have made room there on the table for my beautiful yellow cedar and walnut-bound journal, its pages ready for new ideas, extended thinking. I also dusted off a fountain pen made by an Ottawa wood-turner, given me a few birthdays ago by Forrest and Manon, and filled it with ink. Long live the trees.
When I was working on those first edits, I remember wondering why I hadn’t written the book I’d originally intended: a more standard memoir, with a clear chronological arc, and a straight-forward narrative. But I had a wonderful editor, Akoulina Connell, who told me there was a through-line and arranging the individual essays (or chapters, depending on how you want to describe them…) artfully would allow readers to experience a coherent narrative experience. I hope that’s true. In any case, I don’t think any book I’ve written has ended up being what I thought I was going to write. I know I’ve said this before but following the thread that I’m presented with at the beginning of a book determines the destination, not known beforehand and often a complete surprise to me.
What happened in a grove of trees? In the first place, a life, my life, accumulated there. I walk through, remembering, stopping at each tree–pines, cedars, firs, the unlikely olives and planes, Garry oaks, live oaks, the beeches of my lost grandfather’s Bukovina (and the new planted copper beech, caged in deer-proof wire, in memory of my father, waiting for its benediction of ash), arbutus on an island I sailed to as a young woman, the trembling aspens passed on my way to a wedding, and the arboretum of rare or cherished plantings. “The best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement,” said Cicero in his De Oratore, and I despair of such orderliness. Everything comes to me in such splendour and chaos. Am I right in remembering the owner of the Rolls-Royce as the delivery man at the pharmacy where I worked? Or that I drank raki on a quay on Crete in the morning while my hands bled from rough ropes, that I ever wept (in the second place) on the side of the highway while listening to David Daniels sing Handel?
Later today I’ll work on the final edits of Blue Portugal, guided again by a wonderful editor, Kimmy Beach. Yesterday I sat at the dining table because the power was out and my study was dark; I read each word, as Kimmy advised, and saw a few tiny omissions or mistakes on my part (a comma instead of a period, a missing noun). I also read the book as though for the first time, wondering at its strangeness. I’m not sure what I’d hoped to write but I don’t remember thinking that I’d be exploring the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic in Drumheller quite so deeply or that there would quite so much focus on my aging body. But there you have it. The thread again, the mysterious journey.