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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Names of Trees
I began the email, “I am looking out my window at the snow-capped postal van and the bare branches…” I stopped; I didn’t know what sort of tree it was. Goethe, the writer of The Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust, could approximate the age of any tree from the width of its trunk. Yet, all I could tell peering over through the glass was that this was some sort of evergreen. The entire winter it had sheltered my apartment from the winds that surged over the lake. I didn’t even know its name.
Humbert Humbert was a more conscientious observer than I.
“We shall stop wherever you want,” I said. And then as a lovely, lonely, supercilious grove (oaks, I thought; American trees at that stage were beyond me) started to echo greenly the rush of our car, a red and ferny road on our right turned its head before slanting into the woodland, and I suggested we might perhaps—
‘Drive on,’ my Lo cried shrilly.”
Note that American trees were only beyond him “at that stage.” He planned to learn. He had already noted several birches, the most Russian of trees. Humbert’s author was a lepidopterist and a linguist; a man who made it his business to know the correct names of things.
Once you start reading for trees you find them everywhere, from Proust’s ecclesiastical hawthorns to Silverstein’s Giving Tree. Even their lack has a presence of sorts; George Saunders’ short story, “Sea Oak” starts with the regret that there is no oak, and no ocean.
Then, of course, there is the tree, which in Milton’s words gifted man, “Knowledge of Good bought dear by knowing ill.” Some of the best books I have known do just that. Lolita was not an easy read. We the Animals half broke my heart last week and not just because the brothers snap a sapling’s trunk. These books are in part so beautiful because they describe the ills of the world.
So perhaps this tie between writers and trees is more than a game of association. The Sibyl wrote her prophesies on the back of oak leaves. For years, we scribbled and printed ours on pulp. Even that email was typed on plastic keys, sculpted from oil, distilled from the detritus of forests long gone. It seems only polite to learn their names.
The tree outside my room turns out to be a white cedar; otherwise known as arborvitae, which translates to Tree of Life. White cedar is a misnomer. The tree known by that name is actually a subspecies of cypress and cypresses are associated with mourning. Learning the tree’s name and history made the view feel slightly more mine. I missed a bit less the friend to whom I was writing the aforementioned email.
I’m not arguing that we should all become botanists. There are lots of important things to keep track of these days: where the Thai food truck parks on Wednesdays and the top ten ways to get more Twitter followers. But knowing whether your street is lined with elms or birch makes that street yours. And one day, when you depart, you can pack those linguistic cuttings. They’ll put roots into your skin. Reading the word magnolia, I see the petals fall, as they did when I was small enough to perch in our magnolia’s crook. It’s all there in the plush o, the delicate l, and the precarious dot of the i. My breath will always quiver reading:
Also at the end of the street
there is a magnolia tree
the white kind
after it blooms
so the tree winds up
in the street
-(Mary Ruefle, Excerpt from White Buttons)
My white cedar may be less lovely but it is sturdier. Where I am going next, I may need a d strong enough to lean against.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan started out in London, moved to New York, squatted in Tokyo and is currently in the Middle West pursuing an MFA at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. Previous work has appeared on NPR’s Selected Shorts and in The Columbia Review. @Rowanhlb