TITLE: Limber: essays
AUTHOR: Angela Pelster
PUBLISHER: Sarabande Books
LENGTH: 154 pages
A whole book of essays about trees; how is that even possible? Angela Pelster makes it happen in her sleek collection containing 17 essays, usually around 5 pages each. With titles like “Temple” and “Ethan Lockwood” and “Artifacts,” you may not immediately get the connection to trees. More so, you may not have a sense of direction with the content. But Pelster leads readers along and takes us to unknown territory that opens up like the door through which Dorothy crosses from black-and-white into a color-filled world in Oz.
In a number of Pelster’s pieces, I forgot she was behind the scenes pulling the marionette strings, which left me space to take in the information unimpeded. In the essay “Burmis,” the author describes the now-gone town of Frank, a place where people continued mining despite the dangerous work. The land has a long history of forcing people to leave. But the miners just wouldn’t–not even when a landslide took out part of the town: “The survivors on the safe side of town continued to live alongside the dead, as if their neighbors and their neighbors’ houses beneath the limestone existed in a secret other world, as if they still hung bed sheets to dry on the clothesline below ground, swept floors, cooked dinner in the dark.” Though Pelster must have researched the history of Burmis, Alberta, her authorial link is seemingly transparent, and she knows when to be “out of the way.” Occasionally, she weaves in personal experience, but with the exception of the essay “Rot,” it’s subtle.
The way Angela Pelster teaches readers about trees is enough to make those who read Limber change their minds about the very subject. Did you know that the apostle Paul apparently ate figs on his trip to Cyprus, planting trees from the remains of the fruit on his way? That the pigment Indian Yellow was supposedly made from the urine of cows that were only fed leaves from the mango tree? That in 1832 William Henry Jackson deeded a tree to itself? That tree seeds were taken by Apollo 14 to the moon, later presumed dead, then planted and grew? These are but a few of the topics that Pelster uncovers in her essays, exploring them in a way that shows readers that she’s conveying stories about living organisms that are fundamental to humanity and its history. She gives statistics and anecdotes to support her ideas.
The essays don’t read like a textbook of either science or history, though. The attention to each individual word is enormous. Some lines are lyrical and reflect the curling shapes of leaves while others are straightforward and make readers snap to attention. On finding bones in the desert sand: “Overnight, the wind reburies what took the paleontologists hours to unearth, and the desert rearranges itself, tucking its children back into bed while they sleep”–lyrical. As rot chronicles the decay of a squirrel’s body outside her window, Pelster notes how we are programed to do as much: “Scientists call this autolysis: self-digestion. It comes from two Greek words meaning ‘self-splitting.’ As if bodies carry inside themselves the potential to undo themselves.”–straightforward. Both methods appear in every essay, combining unique, factual information with a fiction writer’s eye for pleasing word arrangement and choices.
I discovered that it was easy to get lost in these essays, to block out the noise around me. The works becomes like dreams. The collection explores nature in a way that made me care deeply about it, not just metaphorically or in a way that makes me hate technology for a day or two. The reading experience was much like a gentle, shallow river that made me appreciate the life of individual trees and the experiences they record in their bodies and the way those experiences can educate me.