Reading the Trees

Courtney Bulsiewicz on Angela Pelster’s Limber


I saw a mallard in a small stream the other day; he thrust his head under the creek and threw the water down the back of his feathers, shaking his beak and making his neck a loose green rag. I stopped in the middle of the stairs I was descending to watch him repeat the maneuver another time.

I wondered what that ritual felt like to him. Was it his version of puddle jumping, having fun and being carefree? Was it like flossing, something he didn’t want to do because his feathers were warm and the water cold but he had to be cleaned? Or was it like hot-tubbing, calming and indulgent? I should have stepped off the stairs and allowed myself to watch him. But after the mallard’s second head dunk I became aware of the fact that there were other people around, going about their days, not stopping, looking at me, maybe wondering what I was staring at. I felt self-conscious that I had stopped to look at a duck doing something mundane that I had probably ignored a hundred times before. I left the stream and went down the rest of the stairs. And now I wonder what I might have figured out, learned about the duck, if I had stayed.

Nature has always been a mystery to me, a lacuna of experience I want to fill. I search for understanding and meaning in the natural world, wanting to know what the mind of a sunbathing duck holds, what the hawk sees from way up there, if a tree feels pain when losing leaves. A part of me feels like knowing answers to these questions will help me understand my own existence.

Angela Pelster’s Limber is an essay collection invested in a similar journey, for her essays center on looking at trees as possible revelators of living experience, seeing implications in limbs, roots, bark that can help us make sense of our own realities. The way Pelster examines trees and other aspects of nature brings her readers a bit closer to an existence we may not be attuned to. Just as dendochronologists study patterns left in tree rings to get a better picture of the world outside of the wood, Pelster examines trees to understand life and the difficulties other living things endure.

By bringing to light stories of trees that reveal peoples and histories of the past, Pelster shows us how much we forget the history contained in what surrounds us. Perhaps we forget because it is too painful to remember.

Within these seventeen essays, the reader can sense a bit of frustration, confusion, sadness, and contemplation about trials. In her piece “Ethan Lockwood,” about a tree limb that enters a boy’s right eye, Pelster writes, “It is difficult to know how to read the signs, which things to be thankful for, how to love this place.” She is trying to make sense of the chaos of Earth, this beautiful planet that holds so much disaster. The stories shared throughout the collection are heavy ones and force the reader to ask the question how much do we have to withstand? But don’t be mistaken—Limber exudes reverence, not melancholia. Pelster’s writing forces her readers to stare pain in the face, revealing a hidden strength contained by nature. In her essay “Rot,” Pelster indicates that trees and humans “are both only one strong wind away from falling.” However, she goes on in a later piece, “Artifacts,” to demonstrate that endurance can continue even after a tree has fallen. Pelster tells the story of “a single stubborn acacia miraculously blooming in the desert—The Loneliest Tree in the World.” The Tuareg people prayed at the tree for years until a drunk driver crashed into and destroyed the monument with his truck. A new metallic tree, made of mufflers and pipes, now stands in place of the living thing killed, a message of hope that we may be changed but can still persevere, reminding people of what stood before and of the importance of remaining.

By bringing to light stories of trees that reveal peoples and histories of the past, Pelster shows us how much we forget the history contained in what surrounds us. Perhaps we forget because it is too painful to remember. Perhaps because we may have never learned. And then, maybe we forget because we think we are stronger than the natural world in which we live. We forget that the world exists outside our own human existence. That man came last. We don’t have roots to connect us to the earth like trees. We wander on top of the world; we use it as our thing to be conquered.

Several of the pieces within this collection make me wonder what would happen if we let the earth conquer us. If I lie down in the grass, or climb a tree and just be still; if I had sat with that mallard, even swam with him, would I then understand how the grass, the tree, or the duck speaks, breathes, sees, feels? Would I lose myself completely—if we want to more fully understand the nature by which we are surrounded, must we surrender? Does understanding of the power of nature require a fir tree trapped inside our lung like Artyom Sidorkin in Pelster’s essay “The Boys of Lake Karachay”? To appreciate the life contained within sand, must we be buried in it, as the people of the Green Sahara were, whose bones Pelster writes about in “Artifacts”? These individuals have seen the other side of nature, the side we don’t often think about. The side Pelster is helping us get to. Complicated, dirty, painful, commanding. The side of nature that we can learn so much from:

I suppose none of it really comes to anything, but I pay attention anyway. I collect signs like a doctor tapping on a patient’s body, looking into ears, pressing on a spine, drawing blood from the unseen places. It is difficult to know when one of these will come to something, when some bit of evidence will be made luminous in the beautiful light, when the world will bend and let slide a little secret from its corner.

Pelster calls her readers to be more attentive, to listen to and look at the nature that surrounds us: what is it saying, showing? What must be remembered? Her essays are laden with research, allowing her to engage with the world of trees more, bringing her readers into that world as well, showing us what it means and what it takes to try to understand. I feel like Pelster would have wanted me to stay with the mallard, feel its past and unearth it through experience as well as exploration so we might come a bit closer to meaning. Limber demonstrates just how closely connected we are to the trees, wind, and even rot that share this beautiful world with us: “it becomes difficult to ignore the weight of the earth pressing in from above and the rumbling of the devil below.” We just have to pay attention to what the weight and rumbling can teach us.

Courtney Bulsiewicz is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Brigham Young University. Her writing explores various forms of connection and disconnection individuals make with their families, communities, nature, and even their own selves. Her essays and criticism have appeared in Inscape and The Criterion.

Limber by Angela Pelster •  Sarabande Books, 2014 • 154 pages

Photo courtesy of Micah McCrary

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