- Mnemonic: A Book of Trees by Theresa Kishkan
In his influential book The Spell of the Sensuous, American philosopher/magician David Abram outlined a new way of thinking about the relationship between humans and the natural world, between human and animal ‘languages,’ and between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ generally, a relationship that hearkens back to older, more traditional ways of living in intuitive harmony and communication with surrounding ecosystems. We have lost our sense of intimate relationship with the earth and with a sense of ‘home,’ Abram observed, and need to learn to ‘re-inhabit place’ in our thinking, writing, and being. Theresa Kishkan’s lyrical memoir, written in deliciously rhythmic and light-filled poetic prose, admirably fulfills Abram’s instruction to ‘re-inhabit place’ in writing as a way of retrieving a sense of intimacy with nature and with the earth. (Abram observed that in traditional Indigenous thinking, memory is not stored in our brains but in the places themselves. Kishkan cites Cicero’s ancient technique of training the memory to organize rhetorical material for the purposes of oratory in imagined ‘places,’ but in fact her method is much closer to Abram’s in its deeply intuitive contacts with trees, birds, and small wild plants, which form a redolent, evocative, colourful surround for the remembered episodes of her life.)
The memoir is organized in chapters named for prominent trees in the author’s life and meanders between personal memories, philosophical reflections, and impressively researched and always vividly presented and beautifully relevant botanical and literary intertexts. While the overall intention to mix memory with the celebration of place is highly successful, the organization of the book according to these different trees is less so; the trees are often evoked without description, without much presence (‘Garry oaks,’ for example, appear throughout the book but are never described, never identified, for those who live in other landscapes with other kinds of oaks or none); in any case the device does nothing to help us orient, to ‘locate’ ourselves in this meandering study, where we are basically forced to follow the whims of the narrator without a sense of where we are going at any given time or for how long or what purpose. [End Page 492]
A more disciplined approach to each strand of this multilayered text could have resulted in a more coherent reading experience and would have allowed the author to develop certain strands of her thinking further. We are given tantalizing glimpses into the life of a young family living close to the land on the Sechelt Peninsula, and yet there are numerous glaring absences: we find out exactly how their little house was built, by hand, by the young couple with a young child in tow, and yet we never find out how they managed to earn what sounds like a reasonably comfortable living there, with trips to Vancouver and Paris to attend art galleries and the opera. (The husband, John, is also a poet, but surely that is not how he fed his growing family on the Sunshine Coast?) We find out interesting things about the narrator’s childhood, but again, there are glaring absences in the episodes which are sometimes filled in later in other chapters, and we are forced to go back in our minds to round out the earlier experiences with the later information. (How the young Theresa became a horse rider, growing up in an often moving middle-class cheese and macaroni suburban family, is one example. There are many others.)
These caveats aside, the book is a gorgeous read and contains breathtaking passages of associative brilliance. My favourite of these is the scene where the narrator is waiting for her husband in a parking lot in Kamloops, next to Tim Hortons and McDonald’s outlets, and becomes fascinated by the ravens sitting on the fence behind them, taking turns at pecking among the dumpsters there for bits of fries or donuts, cheered on by the rest. In Kishkan’s eloquent and fanciful poetic imagination, the ravens assume the stature of mythical heroes, and their raucous...