Sunday Review: The Long, Long Life of Trees
a short story collection from Fiona Stafford
[ Yale University Press / 2016 / 279 pp ]
I picked up this book a few weeks back, on a weekend to the south of this little toenail of a country (the Netherlands). It was tucked away somewhere between a book on Irish landscapes and Scottish gardens, and I immediately cancelled the rest of my plans for that weekend.
I once graduated with a massive monster of a work on the cultural history of trees in the Middle East. And so this book—“[a] lyrical tribute to the rich diversity of trees,” as the blurb says—represented what I used to live and breathe during those last years at uni. I went into this with a good portion of nostalgia and familiarity and, I’ll be honest, a pinch of scepticism in terms of—how much could it teach me? I remember a time, toward the end of my thesis, when I felt as though I’d fully exhausted the world of cultural landscape history and was only reading the same information on repeat. I was weary of opening this treasure box and finding nothing new.
Now if you’re wondering at this point whether I was made to re-evaluate my own sense of grandiosity upon reading: of course the answer is yes. Of course it is! Turns out, Fiona Stafford has written a work that will easily fascinate and educate both old hats and newcomers to the world of tree history. She has that light touch of an author who knows, seemingly instinctively, how to blend complex historical analysis with literary interpretation. The chapters are succinct, each one briefly expanding on the botanical and cultural history of one specific tree species: the yew, for example, or the rowan, the olive, the elm. What makes this work so appealing, in the end, is how the trees become a vehicle in discussing a very human history, a history where we have always tried to understand (if not control) the nature surrounding us. It’s a history where that tendency toward control neatly parallels our own fears and affections, a highlighting of all that’s always been important to us. To make this vague sentence a little more concrete:
In the chapter on the rowan, Stafford zooms in on superstitions surrounding the tree: how it was seen as a liminal piece of nature, a plant that had the power of keeping bad spirits in the spirit world. This “protective power” of the rowan was used to guard all that was precious in a household: the elderly of the family were given walking sticks made of rowan wood, small sailboats were built from it, milk was stirred with it, and—in order to prevent witches from stealing milk from cow’s udders—a twig of rowan was hung above the byre with red thread. For the babes, red rowanberries were used to sow together a necklace: ward off that same witch who, it seems, upon not getting her milk, had turned the hunt for changelings.
“It is easy enough for outsiders to smile at the beliefs surrounding rowan trees and mock them as old wives’ tales,” Stafford writes, “but trees can tell us things if we are prepared to listen.” That is, suspicions about thefts of milk “from inside the cow’s udder are, after all, not so different from worrying about having petrol syphoned out of the car overnight, or finding that the satnav has been stolen.”
There is, after all, “nothing new about the fear of nasty neighbours, or the faint sense of hidden malevolence lurking behind faces we see every day and yet do not really know.”
And therein lies the power of Stafford’s work: her loving storytelling in and around trees becomes a fascinating analysis of the anxious human condition, a collection of mirrors to be held up to each of us in private, under the shade of our tree of choice.
Here, a handful of my favourite things I found out while reading this book:
Yews were associated with death not only because they’re planted in cemeteries and are poisonous: they were planted in cemeteries (and are therefore associated with death) because they are poisonous: to keep wandering cattle off holy ground.
Anyplace that has “derry” in its name, has been named after an oak: the Irish word for oak is Doire, or derw.
Young women in search of love would, in old times, tuck an ash leaf into their cleavage in the hope that the magic of the tree would nudge fate in the right direction.
There were no willows in Britain until the 18th century.
Holly as we know it today was also around, just as pretty, as dark green with its bright berries, in the times of the dinosaurs.
A bundle of birch rods bound together as a grip for an axe makes the fasces: a symbol of power, also the root of the word ‘fascism.’ It was used as an icon for the enforcement of justice during ancient Roman times and today, still: above the door into the Oval Office.
In the summer of 1889, when van Gogh was committed to the Saint Remy asylum, he reflected on the many cypresses that dotted the hilly south of France. In a letter to his brother Theo he wrote, “the tree is a dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape.” And yet, within that landscape, it is “the most interesting dark notes.”
Best read: in bed, right before a walk, right after a walk. Any season will do.
Visit Yale University Press to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Yael van der Wouden
Five Things with Dana Levin
1. The last thing that made you smile.
Talking about the horrendous news of the day (this now needs a trademark) with my sister via FaceTime while hiding our faces behind our long hippie hair (it seemed the only appropriate response to the horrendous news of the day™).
2. A secret.
Now if I tell you, it won’t be a secret anymore, right?
3. The last thing you wrote.
“The story does not truck in the usual effects of horror: evoking, in the reader, inchoate feelings of dread, alarm, vigilance. Indeed the story is told in the past tense, after horror is through. The diction and point of view of the narrator drips with judgement and knowledge: about her innocent self, her husband, his house, his gifts, the situation she found herself in. When she tells us the piano tuner is ‘of course’ blind, there’s awareness there of the ‘of course’ nature of metaphor in the hands of fairytale, of the ‘of course’ nature of her virginal folly in marrying, ‘of course,’ a contemporary Bluebeard. Thus, I must conclude, that despite the title of the story, the creation of dread is not Carter’s real aim. She’s after nausea and corruption, as affects of objectification, states that arise out of being possessed by the material world, without recourse to spirit, mind, heart. It’s why narrator’s abandonment of music—her strongest expressive agency—is a factor in the story.” (on The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter)
4. Favourite city.
New York City on a crisp autumn day, leaves turning and falling.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
Myself (see item 1, above).
Dana Levin is the author of four books of poetry, including Banana Palace (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). She serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri.
I Want to Walk to McDonald’s Forever, Friend
a poem from Rochelle Hurt
“send me a Rite-Aid valentine that says be my bitch
& I’ll be yours.”
I love any and all poems that feature burgers, and Rochelle Hurt’s new poem in Four Way Review satisfies my hunger and yet leaves me unfilled. It’s a poem about the comfort of “Big Macs & a thousand half-hug pats” and yet there’s no definite end. There’s a pained humor in how the speaker aches “to wooze in [their] menthol-cherry/aura”—a phrase sickly saccharine without tipping the poem over into rose-colored territory. I appreciate how the structure of the poem mimics its very action of “walk[ing] back & back & back” with the indented lines and spacing of every end word. I want to rewind and pause every moment in this poem, want to be the one walking home “as one/another”.
Visit Four Way Review to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
Essential Needlework Advice for Shadows, Spectres, and other Ethereal Beings
a story from Rachel Linn
Melding attitudes of do-it-yourself with self-made, Linn’s flash story is a build yourself into being through needlework. Focused so intimately on the body, certain moments, read on their own, lean towards allegory; building skin suddenly becomes about how to be a mentally healthy person in the world: “Choose a thick yarn for this part, worsted weight or larger, to avoid thinness of skin, and knit using small needles to create a tight stitch that will allow nothing to come through.” Even taken as a whole, there’s room to read the story as commentary on physical strength, emotional growth, illness, or motherhood. But the most interesting way is to read her story is as a true missive on how to build a body. Linn is also an illustrator, and she paired the story with an uncanny set of illustrations that on first blush appear to be straight out of a classic needlework book, but a deeper look suggests a literal interpretation of the text in the weirdest way. The net result is interesting, unsettling, and above all, charming.
Visit bracken to read the story.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
How I became fatherless
a poem from Kristin Chang
across two states, counting roadkill, recording
my speed in miles
per dead thing.”
Today I have this beautiful poem by Kristin Chang that does what I always imagined good poetry should; skirt the line between beautiful and painful, the vivid and uncertain. There are too many moments in this poem I want to share with you that I could come near enough to reciting the entire thing back to you.
“He smiles with rubbled
teeth, cavities clean as bulletholes. Asleep, he’s still as a shot
& skinned animal.”
There’s something about retracing difficult moments, conflicting or painful memories, laying recollection down on the dissection table, that doesn’t always translate perfectly to poetry. This is a perfect example of the opposite. It begins to feel like poetry is the only way to remember, to work backwards in a way that shapes sense from circumstance, if that’s at all possible. The language and imagery is crisp and rich, evoking a juxtaposition of sensory input that leaves a negative afterimage lingering when you shut your eyes; the sensation of something alive, something bright and breathing and sweet, something waiting to be unspooled.
“In California, my first fatherless
home is infested with beehives
vibrating walls into muscle.”
Visit Frontier Poetry to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
My Body Is a Destroyer
a story from Hannah Gordon
A friend sent me Hannah Gordon’s story ‘My Body Is a Destroyer’ over Gchat with the words “this is upsetting” preceding the link, and I wasn’t sure what to do with that sort of preface.
This story is upsetting—and it’s upsetting in such a profound and resonant way that I scarcely know how to speak to its power.
Craftwise, the decision to space the text out in extremely short paragraphs gives the narrative a terrifying amount of speed. A woman and her boyfriend are trying to get pregnant—though we know from the beginning the woman attempted to self-sabotage the process—and along the way the surrounding world slips into something resembling apocalyptic ruin. Or maybe it’s the interior emotional strife of the narrator made manifest. Regardless, it works, it gives voice a multilayered conflict of maternity, biology, relationships, and existential dread.
It’s the best kind of upsetting, because it gives you the chance to resettle anew.
Visit (b)OINK to read the story.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
visual art from Allora & Calzadilla
In ‘Under Discussion’, we’re given an unlikely scene: a flipped dinner table that acts similarly to a boat. The table speeding along water is so compelling in its ability to succinctly express diaspora. In some shots, parts of the table are spliced out; I shifted in my seat repeatedly to see what this fisherman was atop. Because this is an object that is usually at the center of a room, communities gather around to eat, discuss, and/or commune with each other. Yet when it’s stripped of context, we aren’t allowed to linger in the room it came from. We aren’t invited into the party, but into this singular view of the surrounding island instead. When we go “under the discussion”, we only experience forward movement into the sea.
In their ART21 interview, the creators Calzadilla and Allora explained that after Puerto Rico was demilitarized, the conversation about how the island’s future development was stuck because “the very people who had been involved in the popular resistance to the Navy’s bombing range were among those who were excluded from the conversation.” So, to take the table is to reclaim your voice, to remind others of just how barren a room can be without its nucleus.
The rev of the attached motor cuts through the shhhing sound of the waves, adding to the permeating sense of anxiety. Each pan away from the water unveils a new trauma. The beautiful shots of the seascape contrast starkly with bomb craters, tanks, a sign that says “Unexploded Bombs.” We get a sense that even though violence has already been enacted, the capacity for violence remains intact. Have the bombs been lifted from their previous site? Where could they be housed safely? How can they rebuild/enhance the landscape that’s fallen ruin? The table is constantly exposed to the elements, even as it glides through waterways. It’s always in conversation because it's never not touching its surroundings. Truly surveying is one of the first steps towards having a worthy conversation, and situating the table amidst the topic makes that possible.
View a snippet on YouTube & the ART21 interview’s photogallery.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse