Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Field Guide to Imaginary Trees

A Field Guide to Imaginary TreesA Field Guide to Imaginary Trees by Joseph Bulgatz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"I'll bet you can't see the Forrest for the trees!"

har-dee-har-har.

Now that we've got that bit of stupid out of the way, let's move on.

"Run, Forrest, run!"

Oh, bahaha! It is to laugh! I've never heard that one before. *disgusted look of doom*

Yeah, with a name like mine (which I'm very proud of, it was my good Grandfather's name, by the way), you get used to being razzed. Once in a while, a friend or acquaintance will come up with something involving my name that is actually quite punny. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, though, I have to suppress a deep well of bitter sarcasm that comes vomiting up through my gullet when I hear the jokes. It's not because of the joke itself, I laugh at myself and laugh with others at myself all the time. And it's not because I'm offended - I've gotten over that feeling a long, long time ago. And I understand that people are just trying to open some fun-loving dialogue through a shared experience of seeing a movie years ago about an imaginary character that has no bearing on civilization - sorry, did I say that out loud? Seriously, though, I get that people throw little jibes at that, usually because they like you, not in an effort to be cruel. But it still makes the sarcastic monster within me scream to get out into the open. Why? It's because, well, sometimes people are just so unimaginative. I mean, come on, if you think you're the first person to pull the "Run, Forrest, run" gag, guess what? You're not. I'm glad you think it's funny and it makes you feel connected to me, but you'll have to forgive me - the grimace on my face is not meant personally, it's just me trying not to vomit.

So you can probably tell that I place a high value on imagination. A very high value. Otherwise, I never would have written a novel and I would not spend inordinate amounts of time and money on roleplaying games. Heck, I pay good money to go to conventions where imagination games are played and writers get together to talk about . . . imagination, ultimately.

With a title like A Field Guide to Imaginary Trees, wasn't it inevitable that I should read and review this book? It's a n0-brainer, N'est-ce pas?

So what is A Field Guide to Imaginary Trees? Well, it's probably better to start by stating what this book is not. It is not non-fiction. But it reads like non-fiction for a good portion of the book. It is not a coming of age novel carefully disguised under a title whose meaning only becomes obvious two thirds of the way through the book, by which time you don't even care that the phrase (the only phrase of any weight or meaning in the entire book) has reared its head through pages of dross. It is not a book of poetry. It is not a natural history of trees. It is not a natural history of human's interactions with trees.

But now we're getting a bit closer. Let's try this:

It is mostly a book of fiction, a collection of short pieces ("stories" isn't the right word, though it is, sort of) that highlight the human experience with trees and how humans project themselves onto the trees by anthropomorphising them and building myth around the relationship of humans to trees. Furthermore, it illuminates the way in which our stewardship of them or destruction of them reflects on our humanity or lack thereof. It is a humorous, then melancholy book about what we get from trees and what we give or take away from them, all couched in the a mythic garb, whether the myths are those of our ancestors, or future myths that may need to be told to account for our collective responsibility and, possibly, collective guilt about how we treated the trees as a whole.

The one piece of clear non-fiction is Bulgatz's excellent essay that opens the collection. In it, the author argues that, in the past, a classical education involved the learning of the art of memorization. Our memories in this day and age are sadly incomparable to those of the past, before vast amounts of data could be stored in a separate, yet easily-accessible place, as we have today. Back then, information was collected, largely, in one's head. Over the years, we have lost much of that ability to collect data in our head not because our brains are any smaller (quite the contrary), but because we have not needed to exercise our minds to practice the techniques of memory.

Bulgatz points out that, while the loss or diminishing of these memory-skills is saddening, an even more important loss is on our horizon - the loss the knowledge of how to exercise our imagination, which cannot be compensated for by computers.

Our dependence on external imagery may well have made us mentally flabby, an unsatisfactory condition for which the Art is the appropriate remedy. For the rest, we need only ponder Anatole France's observation that "To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything".

Bulgatz structures the rest of the book by subject matter, though his method of addressing each subject (and oftentimes, his writerly voice) varies from chapter to chapter. For instance, "Mythical Trees of the Middle Ages," the first chapter, is a pretty straightforward recounting of exactly what the title says. In "Four Versions of the Tree of Knowledge," however, we have the fictional recitation of the old Biblical tale from the point of view of The Serpent, Eve, Adam, and a theologian speculating on The Lord's view of these events. Later, we move on to "The Tree that Brought Fire to Man," the account of an early hominid who accidentally discovers the connection between trees and fire, much to the bafflement of those of his tribe who had earlier cast him out, because he was an idiot. "Daphne/Laurel" tells the classic myth from the point of view of Daphne herself, including her later life in New York City, including a little peek into her therapy sessions. Because, yes, you might need therapy if you had been turned into a tree, as well, if only temporarily. "The Battle of the Trees" is a recounting of a war between conifers and deciduous trees that mirrors Rush's song "The Trees," though I am told that both this story and Rush's song hark back to an ancient Welsh Poem titled "Cad Gaddou" (thank you, [Name Redacted] for pointing this out to me). There is then a piece of legal history entitled "The Prosecution and Punishment of Trees," which provides some fascinating cases of trees being tried and punished for various offenses.

My favorite piece in the collection (outside of the opening essay) is "Tlon Revisited," an homage to Borges done in the most Borgesian of voices:

In Martin's Ferry, for example, a tree established by Michaux, in appearance only an ordinary copper beech, became a favorite site for picnics because of the shelter and shade afforded by its great branches. Those who spread a blanket within its leafy embrace, however, found themselves experiencing the thoughts and feelings of their companions exactly as they appeared in their heads and hearts, before they had been smoothed and prepared, if not sometimes reversed, by the censoring forces of society. There were some startling consequences: sudden insults and violence were not uncommon, bringing to a bloody end what had begun festively; the slow pas de deux of courtship became an amorous sprint; there were unexpected declarations of love, hurried engagements, and spontaneous copulations, but also the sudden end of what had seemed to the world successful marriages and even the repudiation of close family ties.

Further along, we find Dendranthropy, the psychological history of a man who was convinced that he was turning into a tree. I have no good way of confirming whether this was an actual case, or if the account springs straight from Bulgatz's imagination. Frankly, I don't care, the story is brilliant, either way. Then we encounter "The Orange Trees of Chelm," which is the sort of story that Italo Calvino would have written, had he been a native Russian, rather than Italian. "The Shmoo Pear" reads like a very convincing piece of non-fiction until one realizes that Bulgatz is conflating that strange marshmallow-like character that appeared in a 1970's kids cartoon (yes, I watched it as a child) that was a blatant rip-off of Scooby Doo. I probably should have caught that with the subtitle "Pyrus Caapii", after the cartoonist who created Shmoo, Al Capp. You got me, Bulgatz. Well-played.

The final piece in the book, "The Last Tree: Abies silversteinensis," is a piece of science fiction that will leave a hole in your heart, a yearning for the preservation of the wonderful trees around us. It is in this sad conclusion that the real pathos of the book hits one right in the heart. The possibilities of loss are profound and very real.

This last one really got to me. We live on a fairly heavily-wooded 1/4 acre lot. 4 shagbark hickories, a large honey locust, a cherry tree that is so big and old that it won't produce fruit anymore, and several tall maples dot my property. Growing grass is not the easiest thing to do here, to say the least. We've had to take a few of these trees down - a box elder that grew into power lines (before we bought the house) and a pine tree that really just had to go, went. But a couple of months ago, we had to take down a maple behind our house that had become diseased and was dying from the top down. I recall watching my kids (who have all grown now) climb into that tree and create a treehouse out of boards and ropes, swinging from branch to branch like their tree-living ancestors, laughing while dangling, panicking when they lost a grip (thankfully no one ever fell and broke anything), and growing together as siblings. I was sure to take a picture of that tree before it was cut down and it nearly broke my heart, knowing that the nest of those memories was now gone. Still, like Silverstein's famous tree, it keeps on giving. I have spent hours splitting the logs that came from that majestic tree, and have many more hours of hot, sweaty labor ahead of me, swinging my splitting maul. My greatest consolation is that this wood will, from time to time, warm my daughter's expected child beginning this winter. And as this child grows, more trees will grow, giving he or she shade and a place to climb and explore. No doubt, some tree, probably many trees, will spur this child's imagination, just as trees have inspired her parents and grandparents, and on back through the generations.




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2 comments:

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  2. From your book review it looks like a really interesting and different kind of book to read. It has a mix of different genres which would make its reading more interesting.

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