Herewith is the second part of a series on trees. We are reviewing two books that present an interesting contrast in terms of reading material. The first is a fairly well known work by Stephanie Kaza, entitled Conversations with Trees, An Intimate Ecology (Shambhala, pub.). The work was originally titled, and may be more familiar to some, as The Attentive Heart. The second work is Meetings with Remarkable Trees (Random House), by Thomas Pakenham. While each is about encounters with trees, the respective authors could not have taken more diverse approaches to achieve their aims.
Ms. Kaza served as professor emerita of environmental studies at the University of Vermont and has written several books. Her writing comes from a somewhat unique viewpoint: the themes of Buddhism and nature are closely liked throughout this book, and, evidently, in others she has written (Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism and Green Buddhism among them). Moreover, in Conversations she presents an exceptionally personal series of meditations, each chapter being its own self-contained essay, and all with a very spiritual slant.
This approach comes at a price, however. For those readers not acquainted with Buddhism, it can be a bit overwhelming, and, more often, distracting. Her language is elegant and the prose is filled with metaphors and quite poetic descriptions of the otherwise commonplace. Here is an example, dealing with the cutting down of a tree:
But in this space there is not time or space for the luxury of a fully lived death. The pungent, refined smell of gasoline fills the air; the biting sound revs up again. WhrrrEEEEEEeeenEEnn. It is so insistent, so aggressive, so capable of overriding the resistance of the tree….I am beginning to feel worn down myself by the relentless growls and snarls of chain saws. The penetrating vibration presses into my chest, biting away at my heart, carving my trunk into segments.
One must admit the prose is very descriptive and quite compelling. But in the end, the style becomes somewhat exhausting, and tends toward prolixity. As well, it serves to distract from any deep science on the subject of trees. As the book is really a collection of essays, it can be read in small doses—and probably should be by most of us not so into Zen. Yet reading thusly will provide the reader with the rewards of enjoying some luscious prose. One might even see the book as a lesson in descriptive writing.
Totally different is Pakenham’s Meetings with Remarkable Trees. His approach applies the old adage: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Where Kaza exercises her abilities with metaphor and poetical descriptions of nature, Pakenham lets Nature speak for Herself. And for this reader, it was no contest. The photos of the trees bring out the poetry in each—in fact, some could be classified as epic poetry. Most have been around for centuries (one is reputed to have given a shady rest to Bonnie Prince Charlie). I was heartsick to learn that all are in England, but the quality of the photography provides sufficient consolation for not being able to see them in person.
Mostly yews and oaks, almost every one could figure in a romantic story, (my personal favorite is “The Whittinghame Yew”) and in fact, many are associated with figures in history and one with the poet William Wordsworth. One tree has a house built in its spreading branches, another, a door with a room inside. The deep clefts and wide-spreading branches of yews (and a massive wisteria) no doubt have inspired romantic fantasies in the minds of many of their visitors.
Pakenham, an historian, has written some magisterial works in that genre (The Boer War, The Scramble for Africa, The Year of Liberty), but a review of the rest of his body of work reveals an author with a deep appreciation of trees and a wonderful talent for producing books on some spectacular trees from around the world, filled with photographs that visually enrich his essays. So if one becomes of fan after viewing this volume, there is the promise of more. We look forward to acquiring at least one additional volume.
Pakenham was inspired to write Meetings… after a violent storm took down a tree that had been on the family’s property for five generations, as well as by his perception that, despite the ever-growing concern for environmental issues in general, old trees, no, ancient trees are insufficiently treasured. He asserts that such trees in fact serve as documents of nature and this book is intended to preserve those documents as well as enable a greater appreciation of the miracle of their existence. One brief passage in the introduction reveals his view succinctly:
To visit these trees, to step beneath their domes and vaults, is to pay homage at a mysterious shrine. But tread lightly. Even these giants have delicate roots. And be warned that this may be your farewell visit. No one can say if this prodigious trunk will survive the next Atlantic storm—or outlive us all by centuries.”
But the text really is not preachy; for after his introduction, Pakenham lets the trees speak for themselves. The book can serve as and was likely intended to be a coffee table tome, and it succeeds in that aim with remarkable excellence. If you love looking at trees, if there is a bit of the romantic in you, if you just appreciate the beauty and majesty that Nature can offer, this book is a must have!