I’ve always had a thing for trees. I spent much of my childhood in the country, and many of my favorite memories involve the trees that watched as I grew. I climbed trees. I hid in natural forts made from closely-growing trees whose bowing canopy I imagined to be a cave designed just for me. I sat on a swing tied to a branch of a large pecan tree and spent hours reading or making up stories.
When I was a teenager, I took a trip to New Mexico with a group from my church. Others in the group were awed by the canyons, the desert, and the expansive sky. I enjoyed seeing these things, but I missed trees. As we drove back across the country and drew nearer to home, the number of trees lining the roads increased. I squealed with delight to see the varying shades of green and brown, earthy colors that made me feel connected again to the world around me.
In graduate school, I even considered writing my thesis about trees in literature for children and young adults. I saw a connection between the trees that featured prominently in texts like Speak by Laurie Halse Andersen, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and believed that this connection marked the coming of age of the girls in these stories, their trauma, their hopes, their independence.
When I first heard about The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford, I knew I had to read this book. Described on the publishers’ website as a “lyrical tribute to to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings,” Stafford’s book is one I wish I had written and is one I’m glad that I read.
Each chapter of the book focuses on a different tree, ranging from the commonly-revered Oak to the magical Rowan. Together, these chapters explore a variety of trees, their uses, their histories, and their symbolism.
Coming in at only 296 pages, The Long, Long Life of Trees is a brief, but poetic, book filled with trivia, literature, science, and admiration for trees. While information about the tree under whose branches Henry VIII courted Anne Boleyn was interesting, what really set this book apart for me is that Stafford’s examination reveals the interconnectedness of trees and our own lives:
All kinds of tree can reveal unexpected internal connections. The smell of cypress in the rain, or a drift of blossom on a warm spring day, can waft us back to moments on wet pavements or under that old, half-forgotten, pear tree: to those indelible marks of personal history that lie unrecorded by camera or anecdote. Any horse chestnut with a strong, spreading lower branch and puckered trunk can take me back to one I used to climb as a child and ride like a cantering horse or a boat skimming the waves. We moved house frequently, so I do not know whether the tree is still standing, but like many others before and since, it seeded itself in my mind and is there, ready to be shaken into imaginative leaf if prompted.
The book is also about stories, though:
This is one reason why books are so helpful –stories and poems crystallise other people’s experience and so help to subdue and rectify, as well as enhance, your own. The heightened responses of poets, prose writers and painters have helped me to see things in a new, often brighter, light, so much of what follows has grown from the leaves of books as well as trees.
I’ve always had a thing for trees, but after reading Stafford’s book, I’m even more aware of the ways that trees oversee the moments in our lives, both big and small. Trees mark our passing, memorialize history, signify hope for the future, and inform our stories. In the end, Stafford shows that the tree’s story is also our own story.