A seed, planted and nurtured: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

In this era of social media, similar bookish souls do tend to loosely gather, and I cannot be the only one who has been set off on the search for a book on the basis of a shared image and a few good words from a trusted fellow reader. Such was the case with a curiously titled book called How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy. The title and cover art caught my attention. I looked it up and was shocked at the price demanded for the few copies I could find online. Consequently, it took me a long time to track down a copy. When in India I would forget the author’s name or not know what section to look in. Finally, back at home, I lucked out, placed my order and after a long wait, welcomed this most unusual volume into my library.

So what kind of a book is it?

Quite simply it’s a love song to plants and trees, part natural history, part personal exploration—a most unusual memoir/meditation, shot through with striking observations, and fascinating characters, both human and tree-like, drawn from science, spirituality and literature.

Sumana Roy is a freelance writer, novelist and poet writing from, as her bio puts it, Siliguri, a city in the northernmost reaches of the state of West Bengal, India. Nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas, she is in the perfect space for a woman who finds herself, in mid-life, growing toward a desire to become a tree. Strange, perhaps, but it’s a notion that has deep roots in her own life. And although her inclinations are uniquely hers, she finds well-worn paths filled with kindred spirits in her journey to come to understand and articulate what it might mean to adopt a plant-like existence. To be a tree.

How I Became a Tree opens with a series of most unexpected observations:

At first it was the underwear. I wanted to become a tree because trees do not wear bras.

Then it had to do with the spectre of violence. I loved the way in which trees coped with dark and lonely places while sunlessness decided curfew hours for me. I liked too how trees thrived on things that were still freely available—water, air and sunlight; and no mortgage in spite of their lifelong occupation of land.

The early chapters expand on these themes in a quietly dramatic unfolding of her shifting sense of self and awareness of the ways humanity and plantness intersect in life and literature. Drawn to the silence, the sturdiness, the slowness of trees, she is opening up the questions and notions stirring inside, and beginning to mark out the types of pathways she will follow in the pages ahead. Setting the tone.

There is a gentle meandering feel to this work even though it is actually carefully tended, like a beautiful garden. Each section wanders down a different trail, looking for connections, searching for possible answers. Roy analyzes her own obsessions, even her parent-like concern for her plant children (much perhaps to her patient husband’s wonder). She passionately describes the devotion of the remarkable Bengali scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose—formerly unknown to me—who among other important findings, invented a number of hyper-sensitive instruments to measure the most minute movements in plants, hoping to be able to determine if they could feel and communicate. And, not surprisingly, she brings in many literary elements, reading widely in English literature, but reserving special attention for Italian author Jean Giorno, and Bengali writers Tagore, Bhanaphool (whom I recently wrote about), Syed Mustafa Siraj and Bibhutibhushan Bhandyopadhyaya.

The latter of these authors may be known to those who received a copy of his novel Aranyak when it was Seagull Books’ contribution to the Asymptote Book Club in 2018. I brought my copy home from my first trip to Calcutta and, although I did not write about it here, the vivid imagery has stayed with me. It is the story of a young man who, like the author himself, takes a job far from the city, as an administrator in the forests of Bihar. He is captivated by the jungles and by the subsistence farmers who make their living there. It is not only richly descriptive, but, set in the 1920s, it is also an early account of pending ecological destruction for commercial exploitation. Roy connects deeply to the narrator, to his evolution and immersion in the world dominated by trees, plants and flowers. Her reading is detailed and will be of particular interest to anyone familiar with Aranyak.

As Roy’s journey brings her closer to an understanding of her own motivations for her strange longing, and her appreciation for the multi-faceted appeal of trees, this memoir/meditation left me thinking more and more about trees as I have encountered them in poetry and literature and, more importantly as I have known them in my own life. You see, I too, have a deep affection for trees. I even live in a neighbourhood called Spruce Cliff, where every non-numbered street has a tree name. I live on Cedar Crescent. The balcony of my apartment is embraced by the thick arms of a tree that towers over the three story complex. And a six or seven hundred year old stand of Douglas fir trees extends along the embankment below me. The trail that runs through there, a tough hike, washed out in spots, instantly transports me an hour west to the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been walking it for the better part of the last thirty years and have many tree “friends” I look forward to visiting each time. But trees are more than roots, trunks, branches and leaves. When Roy muses about shadows early on in her book:

That there is no history of shadows is one of the saddest absences in our archives. In that laziness is also the refusal to see any worth in the transient, the old privileging of, say, a romantic ‘forever’ over the ‘affair’. Shadows are affairs, short-lived and short-sighted ones.

I think about the spot at the beginning of the long descent at the east of the trail that never fails to catch my breath, no matter the season, when the sun throws shadows across its way. It is always magical. The shadows are as essential as oxygen in that space.

Then there are the trees I’ve met in my travels. Palm trees, of course, so exotic to a northerner like me. The ghost gums in the red centre of Australia. And in India—my newly found refuge for greenery when bare, brown and patchy snow defines our winter landscape. I don’t even know most of the names of the trees but there is always something green, something flowering, and plants that I almost kill as houseplants growing tall and healthy by the roadside. And finally, there are all the trees I had to say good-bye to—a number of sixty-foot spruce, an aging mountain ash, an apple tree and an untameable row of hawthorns—around the house I sold, only a kilometer away from where I live now. Every spring I mourn them. Two newly built houses now share the lot and only two spruce remain standing.

And from other years, in other places I have lived and visited, there are more.

That is the beauty of a book like this. It brings forth the tree lover that dwells in so many of us, ignites memories, and inspires further reading (there is a bibliography). Sumana Roy invites her reader to join her on an entirely singular journey, one that is her own, yet one that cannot but offer moments of insight and reflection, unique to and belonging to the individual reader alone. After all, it’s perhaps not so much a book about wanting to be a tree, than a book about what it means to find the way one wants to be a human in the world.

How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy is published by Aleph Book Company.

Off the beaten path: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

About a month ago, as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic began to have a greater impact on daily life in my community, I became more determined than ever to take full advantage of the pathways behind my home aware that, for a variety of reasons, my freedom of movement could be curtailed at some point. It seemed a good time to invite a companion on these walks, one who would not violate any rules of social distancing. I chose Robert Macfarlane, or rather his text The Old Ways as narrated by Roy McMillan which proved to be an ideal introduction to audiobooks for me and the perfect narrative to walk with. Coincidentally, my engagement with this wonderful evocation of the lure of long travelled trails and passageways overlapped a group reading of Nan Shepherd’s classic The Living Mountain, guided, on Twitter, by Macfarlane himself. But more about that book later.

One of the finest nature writers of our time, Macfarlane is able to bring the world, to use a cliché, alive on the page or, as in this recent circumstance, in the listening. He is able to pull one into the landscape, its history and its place in the human imagination. His books are the product of a deep engagement with the subject at hand, a commitment that often takes years before the final text is complete. The Old Ways, subtitled A Journey on Foot is perfect walking companion because it is, more than anything, about walking—tracing paths and passageways—a book that is not about the destination but act of following the trail. A trail peopled with a collection of intriguing characters, living and long gone, for a path exists as evidence of the creatures who have passed on it before, even if lies hidden for many years or longer, waiting to be uncovered and tracked once again.

As ever, his eye is keen, his writing lyrical, and his affection for those he meets or travels with undeniable. The book opens with the detailed account of a December walk close to home, and as I made my way along the well-loved, oft-travelled trails behind my own home, still snow covered and wintery in denial of the season, I was secretly glad that I had an e-book copy buried unread in my electronic library. As much as I was certain I would cherish the audio experience, I knew I’d want to revisit the words. The setting he described was different, but the sentiment familiar:

This is the path I’ve probably walked more often than any other in my life. It’s a young way; maybe fifty years old, no more. Its easterly hedge is mostly hawthorn and around eight feet high; its westerly hedge a younger mix of blackthorn, hazel and dogwood. It is not normally a beautiful place, but there’s a feeling of secrecy to it that I appreciate, hedged in as it is on both sides, and running discreetly as it does between field and road.

Divided into four sections, The Old Ways, begins in England, traversing different types of landscapes—paths, chalk, and silt— and then moves to Scotland where he travels traditional waterways, explores the Hebridean moors and then revisits his first mountains, the Cairngorms. This is where his grandfather had settled after a life of adventure, and where young Robert fell in love with “high country and wild places.” It is also where his path crosses the ghost of Nan Shepherd whose intimate relationship with the same terrain is recorded in her masterpiece, The Living Mountain, a manuscript completed near the end of the Second World War, but unpublished until 1977. Macfarlane would not encounter her work until much later, long after the author’s death. But her poetic, deeply sensitive nature writing has no doubt informed his own. From Scotland, his journey moves abroad, to Palestine, Spain and Tibet, before coming home again to travel ancient paths and pay homage to poet and writer Edward Thomas whose footsteps guide him throughout this tribute to the powerful pull of the path.

Nan Shepherd, who was born in 1893, was well educated and travelled widely across Europe and to South Africa, but she spent most of her life in her childhood home near Aberdeen where she taught English. Known during her lifetime for a number of novels it is The Living Mountain, published only four years before she died, that places her in the company of the great nature and travel writers of the twentieth century. It is a quiet masterpiece. She writes about her beloved Cairngorm mountains with a mix of poetic passion and clear-eyed respect, chronicling her own maturing relationship with a landscape as alluring as it can be hostile and deadly. The early chapters explore, in turn, the features of the geological and meteorological environment, exhibiting a finely tuned attention to detail. She knows these mountains intimately, experiences a full-bodied engagement with the landscape. However, it is in the later chapters of this slender volume, those that deal with the living elements—flora, fauna, and human—and the more existential aspects—sleep, senses, and being—that this work really sings:

To bend the ear to silence is to discover how seldom it is there. Always something moves. When the air is quite still, there is always running water; and up here that is a sound one can hardly lose, though on many stony parts of the plateau one is above the watercourses. But now and then comes an hour when the silence is all but absolute, and listening to it one slips out of time. Such a silence is not a mere negation of sound. It is like a new element, and if water is still sounding with a low far-off murmur, it is no more than the last edge of an element we are leaving, as the last edge of land hangs on the mariner’s horizon. Such moments come in mist, or snow, or a summer’s night (when it is too cool for the clouds of insects to be abroad), or a September dawn. In September dawns I hardly breathe—I am an image in a ball of glass. The world is suspended there, and I in it.

Over the past month as I travelled with Robert Macfarlane and Nan Shepherd, I could not help but reflect on the pathways I’ve travelled in my life. As child I spent each summer weekend camping and hiking with my family in the Rocky Mountains, my head filled with adventures out of King Arthur and Lord of the Rings. As a teenager I found refuge on the horse trails winding through the aspen woods near my childhood home. In my twenties I moved across country, exploring the bird sanctuaries and natural areas of the Ontario cities we lived in. And returning to western Canada, I have cherished the large natural parklands in this city where I’ve lived for last three decades, especially the Douglas Fir Trail that extends behind my home. But my mind also wandered along trails that my travels over recent years have opened—the rugged shoreline of the Eastern Cape of South Africa, sections of the even more rugged Larapinta running along the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, Australia, or the rutted red roads and granite sheets of rural Andhra Pradesh, India.These are two books that allow you to experience the world through the words of dedicated guides, but like all journeys, the path ultimately leads you back home. Inspired by my engagement with these two gifted nature writers I recently wrote a piece for our “3:AM in Lockdown” series in which I attempted to follow the trail I know best and reflect on the uncertain state of our world at this moment. That short essay can be found here.

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is published by Penguin Books and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is published by Canongate.

A meditation on life and death: Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman

Once I became aware that this book existed, I knew I had to have it. So I ordered it immediately.

When it arrived and I went down to the bookstore to retrieve it (that is, release it from the bookseller who could not refrain from glancing through it as if he was regretting having to let it go), trusting some odd intuition that it might hint at something I was looking for. But, to be fair, I had little idea what to expect.

J’Lyn Chapman’s Beastlife is very small, fitting into the palm of the hand, or better yet, a pocket. An ideal companion for a walk in a park or natural area. I bought it with the idea that it might offer an unconventional provocation for a process of loosening, prying open, the closed window between my loss and the grief that I cannot begin to touch yet. At this point, in the first months following my parents’ deaths, mourning feels more like an empty space. Written of the body, mine and theirs. Confused. Contorted. Corporeal.

2016-08-21 19.53.09Not everyone would look to a book containing photographs of dead birds (albeit small, grainy black and white images), to find a voice for sorrow. For me it makes a strange sort of sense. It sounds morbid, but hopefully, if I manage to put to word the images that haunt my memories of my mother’s last month and days, I will be able to illustrate the beauty. If I have learned anything yet in these early days following the first significant losses of my life, it is that making sense of the death of those closest to us is at once universal and specific. And I lost both parents. Two very different relationships, two different circumstances, two separate yet entwined experiences of grief.

Of course, there is much more to Beastlife than photographs of birds.

This collection of essays—poetic meditations—on life and death, birds and beasts, and our human interaction with the natural world offers evocative, yet insistent reminders that we should strive to observe, engage with, and exist in this world with grace and compassion. Not that we, as humans, always succeed. Sometimes we are careless. And sometimes we are unthinkably cruel—inhuman even.

Death is a theme throughout, up close and afar. And violence too. Chapman explores the ways we intersect with nature—as hunters, naturalists, observers of atrocities, and, most fundamentally perhaps, bearers of new life. This tiny volume challenges the readers to reflect on our place in the cycle of life, in the beauty and the pain.

For me, at this time, when death is very much on my mind, there is an odd comfort in these pages.

The volume opens with “Bear Stories,” a series of very short pieces; raw, visceral prose poems that draw on the intimate complexity of our connection to the natural world. Bound with water, blood, fur, and feather the beauty is shocking, brutal, sublime. Drawn from an earlier longer form chapbook, these “stories” invite us to consider the world at gut level.

In the dark, a body is a pond. The night birds make hollow sounds, and then there is a sound of the mouth, pulled back, curled out. And so on. Fur catches the moon as it comes out barbed and dark. A vertical cut whines under the ribs, and the long grass keeps it from you.

The micro essays and meditations that comprise the central portion of  Beastlife are remarkably rich, drawing on a range of literary and critical resources. “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled and Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds,” for instance, takes inspiration from Ovid, Heidegger, Barthes, Sebald, Tennyson and more. Despite its seemingly whimsical name, this is a more explicit meditation on death and dying framed against images, photographic and descriptive, of dead birds. The ministry of the title is an imagined institution dedicated to a form of archival lamentation, an understanding of death and mourning through the collection of photographic specimens. They seek and gather images into a growing chronicle of sorrow:

We were stopped, and looked down, in the walk by the bird, flies, cigarette, glint of coin. We saw the futility in keeping—the ornaments in hydriotaphia and their obsidian speaking something of its keeper. But the detritus we die alongside or do not die alongside, the litter jettisoned from our death and dying bodies or we die too quickly to regard, utter the currency of living things.

And there is this discomfort: the spectacle. Its hard edges. We have bodies too, we say, and we want them wrapped in webby husk, a film, a membrane huddled into self. But our bodies are still over-looked by our own flânerie, in which the world, and its subtle schism of that which is alive and that which is dead, becomes our final coup for all we have lost in the leaving. All the unmeasured ether, it flames with our light.

In death we are confronted with the fragility of the body—the body of the one who has died and, in reflection, our own. In her next essay, “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy,” following Truth’s advice to Petrarch to constantly meditate upon his own mortality, Chapman contemplates mortality and the miracle of immortality which, paradoxically involves an engagement with death. Structured along lines from a poem by Paul Celan, this journey takes us through the a more familiar archive of natural history. From the delicate art of the taxidermist, preserving the form and imitation of natural life in the animal’s natural habitat, to the narrator’s own relentless search to find her place in the urban spaces she inhabits, the promise of immortality lies, of course, in language.

And yet every sentence has its beginnings and each animal, posed as it is in flight or in fright has its past-tense. Beauty, eternal gesture. I want to write sentences that stretch on toward desperation, as in the fugal voices that become discordant but still lovely, then recollected in harmony. At the apotheosis of the desperation, the line would break into clause or new sentence and the break would be the point of discord rather than calm, and still the dissolution would be reprieve, as when the healthy mind refuses any more annihilation and in its descent decides to rest. But there must be sentences that travel toward the desperate one. There must be travel.

The last entry, “Our Final Days,” echoes in form the contained short prose pieces of “Bear Stories,” but here the brutality is decidedly human—dispatches of cruelty, violence, and injury are played against the hope that some semblance of beauty in nature may preserve us. It’s a faint hope, a lament of an entirely different order. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in the disheartening news that floods our lives through our TVs and news feeds. Sometimes I find myself relieved that my parents will not see any more of the potential darkness that seems to ever loom on the horizon. But then I remember that I have two children. Life goes on. I reorient myself to the future again.

There is a woeful inadequacy that washes over me when I read more conventional memoirs of loss and explorations of grief. I keep peeking into odd corners, turning over rocks to see what crawls out. Reading books like Beastlife.

I keep the other poetic evocations of grief, the books I am amassing, close at hand. I read them to stir up and open the gates that are still secured against the flood of choked tears, the barricades of numbed sadness, that do not seem to be able to allow more than a slow leak in occasional shuddered gasps. At the moment mourning feels more like emptiness. I feel a need to find a starting point with death, with these particular deaths, with watching each one on their deathbeds, before I can find and begin to work through the grief.

Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman is published by Calamari Archive.