Friday, October 21, 2011
island of trees: Picturing Trees for the Next Six Months
One of the many evocative illustrations in Barbara Reid's newest book, Picture a Tree. Artwork from Picture a Tree, Barbara Reid © 2011. All rights reserved.
A few books and a notice of departure. As some of you know, I have colon cancer and I’ve reached a point in my treatment and a point in the seasons, where it’s time to retreat within. I am also working on a book, with the tentative title: Island of Trees: 50 trees, 50 tales of Montreal, due out next spring from Véhicule Press, and I couldn’t quite see continuing the column, writing the book and looking after my health all at once.
So, the island of trees will be slightly fogged in for the next six months but that shouldn’t prevent you from discovering your own islands of trees. To accompany you, I’ve prepared this annotated bibliography of a few books I have found particularly valuable, some for their spirit, others for their precision in identifying the details of trees.
I’ll start with a children’s book, reviewed in the Gazette a few Saturdays ago. It’s Barbara Reid’s Picture a Tree. Reid illustrates her numerous children’s books with Plasticine and I hope she had assistance in shaping the thousands of leaves in this book. She starts with the naked tree, “ a drawing on the sky,” then uses the trees to reflect back on us, how we’ve used trees as pirate ships, hideaways, places of solace, shelter from the sun, a repository of promise, loyally returning each spring. With each illustration, one can linger a long time, seeing new relationships between life in a tree and our lives with trees.
“A tree can be a high-rise home sweet home,” she writes, while the illustration depicts a Kentucky Coffee Tree-like sprawling high rise tree, replete with sleeping raccoons, wasps returning to the hive, young birds being fed and squirrels chasing each other. Meanwhile in the human habitat behind, the various families engage in similar pursuits.
Reid identifies no trees for that’s clearly not the point of her book. Still, with the 40 charming miniature portraits in the endpapers and forepapers, she seems to invite readers to identify – or at least recognize - the many familiar graphic forms: the shape of the ginkgo leaf and the horse chestnut, the baby white oak and the ancient pale grey beech tree, the cheery sumac, and, of course, the laconic white pine.
“Picture a tree, what do you see?” she concludes. For those of you wanting to improve your tree vision, I recommend poetry and drawing – even if neither is a regular pastime. Both demand observation. You may want nothing to do with the scientific or common name in order to keep you imagination free to name the tree as you see fit. When I work with children, they are obliged to come up with their own name before I reveal the common name. That way they can be the discoverer of the tree and analyse it with their own tools of observation and sensing.
If, however, at some stage you want more precision on the name and botanical characteristics, I recommend the following:
1) Arbres et plantes forestières du Québec et des Maritimes, by Michel Leboeuf, Édition Michel Quintin
This remarkably compact and inexpensive book is a superb introduction to our local forest. Not only does it cover trees well, presenting photographically at least five defining traits, the book also has chapters on small trees and bushes, understory plants and ferns. So, come spring with this book in hand, you will be well equipped to identify the emerging trilliums, bloodroot, coltsfoot, etc. While the text is in French, the English names of all species are provided. Furthermore, Leboeuf’s clearly written text provides a great introductory course on the ecology of our local forests.
2) Trees in Canada, by John Laird Farrar, Fitzhenry and Whiteside
Many of you likely know this bible of Canadian trees. Originating as a booklet in 1917, under the title Native Trees of Canada, the actual 502-page tome is our most complete reference book on trees growing in Canada. Very thorough though a tad heavy for a hike.
3) The Sibley Guide to Trees, David Allen Sibley, Knopf
Sibley’s name is usually associated with birds, but a few years ago he turned his hand and to writing and illustrating a beautiful and well-conceived book on tree identification and the basics of botany and plant ecology. While the book covers, principally, trees of the United States, the maps showing the tree’s territory include Canada. This book would make a great companion for a cross-continental exploration.
Of course, there are numerous other great books on trees and I will have to continue this list in the spring. In the meantime, peruse the shelves of your local library to help navigate your way to the island of trees.