Tree Books for the Classroom

In 2008, I was involved in setting up an Idaho Master Forest Stewards program in northern Idaho through the University of Idaho Extension Forestry program under professor Chris Schnepf. Since 2009, I’ve served as a volunteer in the program, primarily writing articles and occasionally serving on panels about our family’s stewardship forest in northern Idaho. I’ve also been involved in the Women Owning Woodlands program, which serves to support women in all aspects of forestry. If you are familiar with a master gardener program, the master forestry program is similar. It’s based on peers educating peers through a wide range of volunteer activities from visiting forests, connecting landowners to forestry professionals, and education. I’ve used my readings and training about forestry and peer-to-peer education models–plus my continuing education requirements–extensively in the classroom.

Because people know that I love trees, they often ask me to recommend books about trees. What follows are a couple of recommendations, several of which I have used in Creative Writing and English Composition classrooms.

Byl, Christine. Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (Beacon Press).

Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most of us do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal “traildog” maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from “the real world” before going on to graduate school. She came to find out that work in the woods on a trail crew was more demanding, more rewarding—more real—than she ever imagined.

Gill, Charlotte. Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe (Greystone Books). The first chapter is available, here.

Eating Dirt is an extended postcard from the cut blocks—a vivid portrayal of one woman’s life planting trees. This literary journey follows tree planters through a year on the job, through bugs and bears, remote camps and logging towns. It offers a glimpse into the unique subculture of those who work at one of the dirtiest jobs left on earth among the world’s last giant trees. The story also traces the seasons of the forest and the remarkable life cycles of trees.

Haskell, David George. The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (Viking). Haskell is one of the best people writing on trees. I highly recommend his work. Through The Songs of Trees, we travel the globe, listening. To listen, we must learn. Haskell includes contemplative practice in his teaching and writing, and he teaches us how to pay attention. For example, in the chapter on “Sabal Palm,” on “a barrier island off the U.S. coast in Georgia,” we hear sand:

The sand on the seaward edge of the dune banked at a sharp angle, running to the beach in one sweep from just below the dune’s peak. Sitting close, I heard this face whisper, a sibilant hesitation, only audible when the seethe of distant wavelets quieted for a few moments. The sounds came from liquefied sand, patches of the slope that suddenly lost their grip and turned, in an instant, to fluid from granular solid. The sand hissed as it raced down the slope in narrow chutes.

The Songs of Trees take us to the Amazon, to the East Coast of the United States, to Japan, to Scotland, and elsewhere. Haskell is an astonishing literary nature writer, and The Songs of Trees is poetic and lyrical, engaging our need for images and story while grounding us with facts and science.


Merwin, W.S. Unchopping a Tree. Illustrations by Liz Ward. (Trinity University Press.) This is a gorgeous poetic essay that answers Merwin’s question: “How do you put back together a tree that’s been felled?” It’s a mediation on “unchopping” trees as well as creative itself. How do you write what has been undone? Merwin teaches us how.


MacIvor-Andersen, Josh, Editor. Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction (Outpost 19).

In this collection, we meet a boy who ate a tree to gain access to the Guiness Book of World Records, a tree-tethered sniper at a pot farm in California, a man who was killed by a fallen limb in Central Park, and lots of writers, both established and emerging, whose intimate connections to trees (and their losses) have found a collective home in the pulped pages of recycled forest.

I assigned this anthology as one of my texts for an English Composition 101 course and was thrilled at the student response to it. Full disclosure: I didn’t specifically assign my essay, “The Line of No Trees,” which is included in the anthology, but I did use it as an example of writing for publication. Bill McKibben’s introduction is excellent. Contributors include many writer-teachers with whom readers of Assay will be familiar: Karen Hugg, Lia Purpura, Wendy Call, Matthew Gavin Frank, M. J. Gette, Jacklyn Janeksela, Renée E. D’Aoust, Angela Pelster, Brian Doyle, Jacqueline Doyle, Andrea Scarpino, T. Hugh Crawford, Thomas Mira y Lopez, Steven Church, Mercedes Webb-Pullman, Fred Bahnson, Stefan Olson, Diane Payne, Zoë Ruiz, Amaris Feland Ketcham, Kayann Short, Diana Hume George, Annie Bellerose, Paul Lisicky, Toti O’Brien, Lori Brack, Mackenzie Myers, Courtney Amber Kilian, John Roscoe and Theresa Kishkan.


Nisbet, Jack. Ancient Places: People and Landscape in the Emerging Northwest (Sasquatch Books). For readers interested in tree history, Jack Nisbet’s books about naturalist David Douglass are must reads. Sources of the River brought Hudson’s Bay Company explorer David Thompson epic travels, which predates Lewis & Clark, into a contemporary focus. fAncient Places: People and the Landscape in the Emerging Northwest has a wider range of subjects with fascinating essays on the Inland Northwest. Nisbet helps us trace natural history in our current time suggesting, “We are all travelers, really.”

Pelster, Angela. Limber (Sarabande Books). This is a startling collection of often lyric essays would be an excellent text addition for an advanced creative nonfiction workshop. (Consider adopting it along with Byl’s Dirt Work and Gill’s Eating Dirt.) When I reviewed Limber for Rain Taxi, I wrote this:

In Pelster’s essay collection Limber, she expresses an almost religious reverence for the ways that trees root and grow, inhabiting her conscious and subconscious, and revealing deeper meanings rewarded to those willing to sit and be—with trees. Here trees grow in wombs and hearts, frogs sit in their branches, and trees also wound young boys.


Renee DAoustRenée E. D’Aoust’s Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. Seven essays have been named “Notable” by Best American Essays and “Gratitude is my Terrain,” published by Sweet: A Literary Confection, was named one of “2016’s 30 Most Transformative Essays” by Sundress Publications. She was an NEH Summer Scholar at the “City, Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” 2017 Summer Institute run by the University of Washington. D’Aoust teaches online at North Idaho College and Casper College. Please visit and follow her @idahobuzzy.

#AWP17 Conference — B. Douglas Caldwell reports on “The National Book Critics Circle on the Art of Criticism”

awp#AWP17 Panel Report: F253. The National Book Critics Circle on the Art of Criticism

Description: Four leading literary critics—Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Margo Jefferson, whose new book Negroland won an NBCC award in 2016; NPR critic Maureen Corrigan, winner of an Edgar Award for Criticism; Ron Charles and Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post, both winners of the NBCC’s Balakian Award for criticism—discuss the fresh ways critics are writing about books today, including the new hybridity. All represent criticism as a provocative activity, all are always in search of something new to say.

Presenter Change: Ron Charles was apparently unable to make the panel, and he was replaced by Dr. Walton Muyumba, book reviewer and author of In the Shadow of the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.

Panelists: Margo Jefferson, Dr. Walton Muyumba (substitute for Ron Charles), Maureen Corrigan, Carlos Lozada, Tom Beer

Conference Report

At any conference, there are panels that get off to a rocky start for reasons completely out of the presenters’ control. Unfortunately for the panelists representing the National Book Critics Circle, their discussion on criticism was one of these victims of chance. In addition to the last-minute substitution of author and Indiana University professor Walton Muyumba for Ron Charles, there were some apparent hiccups in the sound system that cut into the session’s allotted time and caused a ten-minute delay. In those awkward early minutes, more than a few in the audience got up and left.

If any of those early departures are reading this, I’d like to say: You really should have stuck around.

Despite all the trouble getting off the ground, this panel proved to be a worthwhile discussion for any aspiring reviewer. In a nice complement to a panel from last year’s AWP, the largely craft-focused “Art of the Review,” this year’s review discussion steered in a more motivational and encouraging direction, with plenty of advice and wisdom for review writers in general rather than specific points of style or technique. Moderator Tom Beer framed much of the discussion around a popular conception of the critic addressed in A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism (2016): that criticism is only a secondary reaction to real art, and is “useful, perhaps, but basically superfluous.” All four panelists rose admirably to the challenge of defending their work as both necessary and an art form all its own.

Carlos Lozada, the self-described “newbie” among the panelists, steered the conversation in what became its most productive line of thought: that, in many respects, the critic is not a lofty judge of literary merit, but just another member of the book’s audience. The only difference between the critic and the general audience, Lozada said and the other panelists echoed, is that the critic has a platform to make their opinion public. Lozada spoke with an enthusiasm for his work that spread throughout the panel, and discussed the role of reviews of nonfiction works as “entrypoints into any conversation;” in other words, a good review—while no substitute for reading the genuine article—can give its readers enough to comment on any given hot-button issue tackled in the bestsellers of the day.

Walton Muyumba was noticeably quieter than his fellow panelists, but he spoke with good humor and got many a laugh when, in response to the question of who his influences and inspirations were, he openly fanboyed about sharing the stage with Margo Jefferson and Maureen Corrigan. “Critics are the first audience,” Muyumba said, placing emphasis on the role that reviewers take as gatekeepers for the written word. He also advised, quite strongly, that reviewers be wary of spoilers and plot summary, recommending instead that the review be “an essay on the themes that emerge in the work.”

All four panelists addressed the review’s unique status as a piece of writing read by “an audience of both initiated and uninitiated readers,” to borrow Muyumba’s phrasing, but Maureen Corrigan gave the best take on the issue. Corrigan is just as delightful to hear on a stage as she is over the radio, and she spoke about finding the right voice for a given piece with a fire she doesn’t often bring to Fresh Air. Although she agreed that a good review will speak to as many readers as possible, she also cautioned that even the best criticism will “offend” at least a few readers for coming across as too informed, elevated, or otherwise pretentious. Corrigan argued that reviewers should ignore that small contingent of the population and resist the temptation to dumb down the review. “If you’ve worked hard to know something, own it,” she said: “Never give in to anti-intellectualism.”

Finally, Margot Jefferson offered the suggestion that the modern book reviewer, as a well-read individual poised to offer opinions on a lot of different works and topics, works in the tradition of the public intellectual; we are, Jefferson says, “the minds that are at work on the culture,” and review writing makes us kindred spirits with the likes of H.L. Mencken and Ralph Ellison. Jefferson also took hard issue with the idea that the critic is unimportant. At one point, unprompted, she looked to the audience and said bluntly, “Don’t be ashamed because you’re a critic.” A handful of us in the audience—myself included—gave a little applause then and there.

Although the panel got off to a bumpy beginning—and, as the end of the timeslot drew near, it became apparent there wouldn’t be much chance for a Q&A—this proved to be one of the most encouraging of the conference. The lesson for any reviewer out there is clear: What you write isn’t of secondary importance, but fine work all its own.


B. Douglas Caldwell is a graduate English student at Austin Peay State University. His first published book review is forthcoming in Zone 3 Journal.

Prairie Silence- A Book Preview

hoffertAs I mentioned in my last post, I’m a truth teller. I hate keeping secrets and was brought up being told to always be honest.  But what if I had a big secret? How long could I let it eat away at me? How would it change my life?

For author Melanie Hoffert, she kept her silence for years growing up on the prairie of North Dakota. Coming out was not something people did on the farm. Life led her to live and work in Minneapolis, but in this thought-provoking memoir, Hoffert takes us on her harvest time journey back to her small town, the farm, and the silences that still existed on the land. Prairie Silence is “a rural expatriate’s journey to reconcile home, love, and faith.”

Hoffert writes with such warmth and honesty it’s like re-connecting with an old friend who somehow feels comfortable enough to share her deepest yearnings, pains, and joys in release and understanding. It must have taken real gumption to write this book, but it is also easy to see how necessary it was. Continue reading