by Alan Jacobs
The Life of Trees
I have come late to the knowledge of trees, and while I would like to think that I have loved them all my life, that's probably not really true. Had I loved them all along I would know more about them by now. The most enlightening and attractive writers about trees seem to have been lifelong aficionados—one book I recently read begins, "Having been partly arboreal since the age of eight, I … "—and the ease with which they describe their old friends shames me a bit. Reading them, I feel much the same envy I feel when watching an experienced skater flow across an iced-over pond.
In the preface to his first collection of essays, Happy To Be Here, Garrison Keillor explains how he came to realize that the years he spent, at the outset of his career, trying to write a big novel were just wasted. Looking back on that fruitless time, when piles of typed pages grew on his desk without amounting to anything more than piles of typed pages, he came to see that his ignorance of trees was emblematic of his difficulties. The novel-in-progress itself
lay on a shelf over the radiator, and next to it stood the typewriter stand, up against a window that looked out on an elm tree and a yellow bungalow with blue trim, across the street. I assume it was an elm because it died that spring during an elm epidemic and the city foresters cut it down, but in fact there are only four or five plants I can identify with certainty and the elm is not one of them. I regret this but there it is: plant life has never been more to me than a sort of canvas backdrop. There was a houseplant in that bedroom too, some type of vine or vine-related plant, and it also died.
The characters in his novel, he says, spent a lot of time smoking while propped against trees; but what kind of trees he did not say. Nor did he care. In retrospect Keillor saw that the story grew dull and lifeless because its fictional world was so skimpily furnished; characters who devoted so much time to "leaning against ...