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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 www.reneedaoust.com and follow her @idahobuzzy.

Teaching “Captain Love” by James M. Chesbro

The first major assignment in my first-year Composition class is a literacy narrative. One of the biggest leaps I’m asking the students to make in the sentences they construct is to shift their guarded writing objective from trying to “prove” a thesis, to the more courageous attempt of trying to reveal a sense of humanity in themselves as narrators and the people they write about. They want to glorify or chastise, but I want them to consider how the writers in our curriculum create characters with some complexity, characters that are human.

The first drafts the students create regarding learning to read or write tend to include early memories of a parent or an influential teacher. I love teaching Jerald Walker’s “Captain Love,” published in River Teeth, because this concise and moving essay allows me to invite them to question how the honest narrator portrays his father.

Walker’s essay begins with his blind father coming home from his job as a high school teacher. A rainstorm had soaked his father’s white dress shirt, making the t-shirt beneath visible. The twelve year-old Walker deduces that his father had accidentally put on his eighteen-year-old brother’s t-shirt, on which was a picture of a man and woman having sex. Tshirts

As we enter into Walker’s opening scene, I want to navigate the students through the essay by pointing out how the writer develops his father into a person whose limitations go beyond the obvious physical impairment of blindness. As a boy, Walker knew his father would “explode” if he told him he was wearing a pornographic t-shirt, which had become visible. Even though Walker informs us both of his parent’s are blind, I want to emphasize that the adult narrator looking back on his twelve year-old self does not depict an angelic boy whose wings fly him above the challenges of having blind parents. In fact, he tells us that “sometimes,” while “feeling mischievous, as I was that late afternoon when my father came home wearing porn,” he enjoyed telling on his brother, “smiling at the thought of my brother’s fate.”

Exercise:

I split the room in half. One side needs to find assets and shortcomings for the father, and the other searches for these examples in the narrator. Each side of the whiteboard is dedicated to each character. I ask them to name a quality they observe from their assigned character and to list a short quote that demonstrates this characteristic.

Once they return to their seats, and we discuss what they have written on the board, it becomes apparent that the father is not unrealistically depicted as an invincible man with endless patience. After Walker told his father what he was wearing, the father curses. He takes the t-shirt off, and “snatched the T-shirt over his head so violently it tore, which set in motion a tearing frenzy.”

We re-read the paragraph where the adult narrator reveals his ability to see that “despite my father’s rage, he would one day forgive this too.” Walker states his father “forgave all of his children for our transgressions.” And eventually, together we settle into the specific examples of the “many violations” Walker shares,

like how we gathered our vegetables in our hands during dinner and, under the pretense of getting more milk, dumped them behind the refrigerator; how we kept our lights on in our bedrooms well after lights-off time; how we tiptoed into the kitchen to sneak cookies; how when told to turn off the television, we put it on mute; and how, if we were in the front of the house playing a particularly captivating game beyond our curfew, we remained silent as our father stood on the porch, his hands cupped to his lips, calling our names—transgressions we might have gotten away with if lights and televisions did not hum, vegetables did not rot, neighbors did not snitch, if cookies ate themselves.

Writing Prompt:

Toward the end of class, I tell the students to recall an experience that stands out in their minds about an adult figure they know very well. Summarize the experience on one side of the page, naming both the attributes and shortcomings of that adult. Then on the other side I challenge them to write this experience as a scene. Try to avoid any commentary. Include some dialogue. Take us to a specific place.

I remind them what makes Walker’s father “Captain Love” is after working all day to support his family, he comes home to realize he had been wearing his son’s pornographic t-shirt. He eventually moves past his anger and “forgave his children.” How is the adult they are writing about human?

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James_Chesbro.jpgJames M. Chesbro’s essays have been listed as notable selections in The Best American Sports Writing 2014 and The Best American Essays 2012, 2014, 2015. His work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Connecticut Review, The Huffington Post, AOL.comThe Good Men Project, Superstition Review, Weston Magazine, The Connecticut Post, and Spiritus. He is the co-editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (Welcome Table Press, 2013). Essays are forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree and Pilgrim. James teaches full-time at Fairfield Prep. He holds an MFA from Fairfield University, where he is an adjunct professor of English. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children. Please visit his webpage and follow him @Jamie_Chesbro.

In the Classroom: Teaching “Citizen Vince” by Erin Davis

“I CitizenVinceCoverImagedidn’t think I would like it, but I binged that book like it was Netflix!” This reaction by one of my students to Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince perfectly sums up why I have taught this novel in my community college English 101 classes for the past seven years. Many of my first-year college students enter my classroom as reluctant readers, skeptical that any book their English instructor makes them read will be relevant to their lives. They expect it to be hard. They expect it to be boring. They certainly don’t expect it to speak to their own hopes and struggles. When they read about the life of Vince Camden, Walter’s credit-card stealing, pot-dealing protagonist who—in spite of the opportunity given to him by the witness protection program to start his life over—remains stuck in his old habits and old patterns of thinking, my students are surprised to see themselves in Vince. And they want to read more.

It’s not an instant attraction, however. Some struggle with the structure of the first chapter: “why doesn’t the author tell us who Vince is before we start reading Vince’s thoughts? Why just jump right into his head like that? It’s confusing!” Others complain that the chapters are too long (the longest is 48 pages). Some are put off by the profanity: “The first f-bomb appears on page 8,” one of my students announces as she walks into class. “Is that normal for a college book?” Still others tell me that they don’t want to care about a guy who hangs out with prostitutes and sells drugs: “I shouldn’t have to read about people like that!”

It doesn’t take long, however, for most of my North Idaho students to get hooked. After all, Citizen Vince is a page-turner, a crime novel set in nearby Spokane with plenty of twists and turns and humor to engage them in spite of their initial resistance. But along the way, Vince grapples with some big questions, questions that my students grapple with, too: What does it mean to be normal? Are we destined to repeat our past or is it possible to truly change? How does one begin to take responsibility for one’s choices? What does it mean to be a productive member of society? My students begin to root for Vince because they find something familiar in his quest for redemption.

Like Vince, my students long for a better life, but they worry about whether they are capable of doing what it takes to achieve it. They enroll in community college because they know that they want something more for themselves, even if they don’t yet know what that “more” is. My favorite passage from Citizen Vince recalls a scene from Vince’s past, when, as a young man just out of prison in New York City, he would observe the college students in Washington Square and wonder what they had that he didn’t:

“Something was missing. Was it simply the sense of opportunity that came from having money and education? Was it a question of patterns of thought; were they conditioned to make better choices? Or was it some personality trait—a drive, an assuredness, some measure of place in the world—some quality that Vince could define only by his lack of it.”

This point in the novel is magical to me, because it is here where so many of my students locate themselves in the text. Walter’s portrayal of Vince’s insecurity, his sense of separateness and otherness from those college kids, resonates deeply in my classroom. My students identify far more with Vince in this scene than with the students he watches, and this passage often leads to a class discussion in which we begin to break open their assumptions about academic success and unpack the worries they have about their place at the college table.

During a discussion of Walter’s use of setting in the novel, one of my students proclaims “Location, location, location—that’s what this book is all about!” She explains that it’s not just important to notice how Jess Walter describes the places in the novel, like saying that Sam’s Pit, the dive bar in Spokane where Vince hangs out “works like a drain for the city,” but to notice how Vince thinks about those places. Other students agree, pointing out that when Vince’s thoughts about where he is begin to change, he begins to change. It is at moments like this when I tell them that they are exhibiting the kind of scholarly habits that I expect of college students: they are asking questions about the text, examining it to see how it works, and making claims about its importance.

It’s no wonder that Vince’s attention to his surroundings and shifting sense of belonging come up in our classroom discussions. Most of my students find themselves in my English 101 class because of its location. They have enrolled at our community college because they need a local, affordable place to go to school. Recent high school graduates are there because they were told by their high school counselors that they need to go to college in order to have a good career. Many of my older students find themselves in my classroom after years of working a string of minimum wage jobs. Tired of barely making it, they’ve returned to college in search of financial security. Still others are veterans for whom my composition class is one small part of a larger adjustment to civilian life. My students’ reluctance to read is often intertwined with their uncertainty about the shifting landscapes of their own lives. Citizen Vince surprises them by speaking to their struggles and making them readers. “Are you sure this is literature?” one of my students asks me after class. “I didn’t know they made books like this for guys like me.”

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ErinDavisErin Davis lives and writes in Spokane, Washington and teaches English at North Idaho College. She holds an M.A. in English-Literacy Studies from CSU Long Beach, and has focused her teaching career for the last eighteen years on the needs of first-year writers and first-generation college students.