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Your Spring Tree-ding List
As I prepare to publish my own tree book, here are eight I couldn't live without.
Housekeeping: I am excited to announce that reservations for my book launch on April 11th at 7:30 at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles are going fast, so do reserve them now to guarantee yourselves some seats! Also, you can buy a book through the Skirball museum store in order for me to sign it that very evening. But do not panic, if your book doesn’t come until later, everyone who attends the launch will get a Periodic Table of Pinecones (more on that later) for signing as well. I’m really, tremendously excited about this event.
If you can’t attend, there will be a bunch of other public events during April and May in a bunch of different cities, including Portland’s famed Powell’s City of Books (where we’re a Spring staff pick, thanks, Powell’s!) on April 19th.
Your Spring Tree-ding List
As I put forth my own entry into tree literature in April, I thought I would gather some non-fiction from my tree book collection that is some combination of indispensable, undersung, or otherwise masterful. I am neither researcher nor journalist, and the authors of these books have showed me how to love trees more than I ever could on my own. As a content creator—which is what I am—I owe them a huge debt that I will need to figure out a better way of paying forward than the occasional listicle or Instagram tag.
It’s not that I don’t love Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees or Dr. Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree. I do and they are wonderful and very personally meaningful to me, but some other books have hit a bit harder for reasons unknown. Here they are, in no particular order:
American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree (2009) by Susan Freinkel
I’m actually a slow reader, despite what my antic social media persona might suggest, and I go even slower when I love a book in order to savor it, and, man, did I read this book slowly. It’s almost fifteen years old now, so the research of the American Chestnut’s return to prominence is somewhat out-of-date, but Freinkel’s magazine-style reporting, prose, and assembly of tree obsessives gives you a sense of the holy for those who worship in the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), a tree nearly wiped clean from the surface of the earth.
The Sibley Guide to Trees (2009) by David Allen Sibley
This is where it all begins and ends for me. I still can’t believe that David Allen Sibley, whose secondary interest is trees (he is, first and foremost, a bird man), could make such a beautiful compendium of hand-wrought illustrations for every single tree (nearly 700) on the North American continent. In doing so, he basically wrenched nature away from its stale glossy photo epoch and situated it back in the botanical illustrations of the 19th century, when the tactile and olfactory experiences of it, so long forgotten amidst mechanization in the 20th, were dominant. The Guide (I usually just call it “the Guide”) is an indomitable good, and I owe most of my organizational tree knowledge to this book.
The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism (1998) edited by Laura Rival
One day, I was searching for a heady roundtable of biological experts and anthropologists who could tell me about both the cross-cultural and idiosyncratic relevance of trees in different societies, and low and behold, I found it. It’s a quarter-century old at this point, and not for the academically faint of heart, but where else are you going to find an article entitled “Palms and the Prototypicality of Trees” that takes seriously the question of whether palm trees count as trees (they don’t)?
Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World (2020) by Kathryn Aalto
Aalto is a nature writer and renowned writing teacher living in England, and the mission of this book is simple: wrest the nature writing narrative away from the old boys club. I need not tell you about the sometimes ugly co-evolution of nature writing and the so-called “conservation” movement of the late 19th century, but suffice to say that the people who thought the outdoors was a place for themselves alone also felt like writing about the outdoors was a thing that only they could do. Aalto blows this narrative up, serving up writing—and her own context and analysis—from a compilation of women nature writers over the past two centuries. Also, Robin Wall Kimmerer huggin’ a big ol’ birch on the cover. Heyyo!
Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees (2022) by Jared Farmer
This is a new classic for me. Farmer’s book about ancient trees is more or less a masterpiece when it comes to an exhaustive exploration of what it means to be extremely, extremely old. The first time I picked up this book, it fell open to a random page. On that page (p. 187), Farmer promptly dispelled a bullshit line I had bought into for years—that a lumber company foreman named Frank Boole had spared the life of my favorite tree (the eponymous “Boole Tree” in the Converse Grove in Sequoia National Forest) because he couldn’t bear to have such an enormous tree fall. Turns out, Frank Boole presided over the destruction of the greatest grove of giant sequoias in the world has ever known then ran out of money to cut the tree because Sequoia lumber is a useless bunch of toothpicks when it hits the ground with such enormous force. I get bitter about very little, but what a waste of life. This is the book.
A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us (2016) by Matt Ritter
This is my local (read: 400 mile radius) tree guide, and it’s really, really good. Ritter is one of those guys who can tell apart a White Ash (Fraxinus americana) and a Shamel Ash (Fraxinus uhdei) without a second look. Probably because he’s one of the most knowledgeable people on trees in North America. Ritter spends so much of the book painstakingly detailing the non-native species which comprise the lion’s share of California’s lower elevations (especially street trees), which makes this a vital book for anyone interested in the idea of canopy cover or urban tree equity.
The Piñon Pine: a Natural and Cultural History (1981) by Ronald M. Lanner
My favorite tree writer is a guy named Ron Lanner. Not necessarily because he writes with the most descriptive prose (though he does do this) or because of his tree insights (though he has a shit ton of these, too), but because our taste in trees is virtually identical. I have five books on my shelf by Lanner—Conifers of California (which is, aside from The Guide [see above], my favorite tree guide), Trees of the Great Basin, The Bristlecone Book, Made for Each Other: A Symbiosis of Birds and Pines, and, finally this book. Lanner hit me with the full scope of the Piñon’s importance, which few people understand outside the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest (for whom it has been a staple of, you know: diet, imagination, ritual, and construction material for millennia) and those who otherwise have formed a kinship with it.
Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods (2022) by Lyndsie Bourgon
I’m just digging into Bourgon’s book at the moment, but it makes a remarkable companion piece to Jared Farmer’s Elderflora. It’s an investigation of tree poaching, most of the time at the expense of old growth. Ever see a picture of a Redwood crime scene? Where a giant chunk of a tree basal burl, taller than the officer standing beside it, has been hacked out so that the tree is practically hemorrhaging sap? Bourgon’s book is the stories behind those cuts, and why they’re made in the dead of night.
An Out-of-Context Sentence from Must Love Trees: An Unconventional Guide
“My wife was sympathetic when I told her that I wanted the Indiana Jones-like experience of quickly running my fingers along a series of related book spines until I found just the title to quench my query, so she allowed me to have my own bookcase where I could exploit this fantasy. Thank you, madam—my heart is yours.”