Theresa Kishkan, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees

Yes, yes, the book’s twelve years old, I appreciate that, but book reviews are only tied to novelty because of the marketing imperative. You want to read something new, or you want to read something good?

Speaking of novelty, though, it’s true that I wrote about Theresa Kishkan’s Mnemonic: A Book of Trees once before, way back when it was indeed shiny and fresh from Goose Lane Editions. The thing is, I’m an inveterate re-reader, even if there are too many new books for me ever to keep track of, not to mention far too many old books for me ever to be able to stumble across enough of them in only the one lifetime. Among all the rest of the volumes eddying around my tired brain, Kishkan’s books come to mind more than most, but I struggle to articulate why that might be.

Time for another go, that might help you see whether she’d be a good addition to your To Be Read pile. (Spoiler: I think she would be.)

Now, I don’t trust blurbs, and as it happens, currently I don’t quite trust Terry Glavin either. (He’s someone I’ve read regularly and with care, but it does take real care.) At the time of this book’s publication, though, Glavin got downright effusive:

“At once erotic, intellectually rigorous and beguiling, Mnemonic is cultural botany, memoir, arboreal ethnography and love story. It is a sublime and rare thing when writing so gracefully defies taxonomical classification.” — Terry Glavin

In essence, Mnemonic is nine linked, interwoven essays about threads and moments throughout Theresa Kishkan’s life, each one organized around a single tree species. About half are native to British Columbia (more or less); others occur sometimes in BC, but come from away; while others don’t occur here. The common thread, in other words, is in Kishkan’s attentiveness to the multiple species that surround us humans as we make our way through the world, in this case species that don’t generally make their own way anywhere without the assistance of humans.

For me, it’s the moments that call out and keep me coming back. Take the brief description of a raven gang behind the McDonald’s in Merritt, BC, for example. It’s from the chapter organized around plane trees (“Platanus orientalis: Raven Libretto”), which has more to do with birds than trees, but is in fact mostly about Kishkan’s decision in her late 40s to start taking voice lessons, inspired at first by David Daniels’ performance of “Ombra mai fu.” We visit opera houses, and music studios, and the shade of plane trees in Greece, but mid-essay we’re arrested by a group of ravens at a dumpster:

“It was a kind of magic, a black magic, that I was in a part of the country I love—the golden hills rippling like buckskins, rainbows appearing over the irrigation sprinklers on the hay fields, cattle with their young waiting to be transferred to the high ranges—watching a theatre piece at the McDonald’s while all around me drivers filled their vehicles with gas, shoppers transferred groceries from carts to the backs of pickup trucks, someone swept the sidewalk in front of the Dollar Store, the Open light at the Taco Del Mar was flashing red and blue, and a loud clanging of iron up at the Canadian Tire indicated someone was hard at work with wrenches and jacks.” (p.119)

The ravens are calling to each other, watching over each other and watching out for the humans around them. The songs and calls are rising and falling, echoing and throbbing, and Merritt’s a richer place because of them. And yes, that’s what the high landscapes there look like, though I’ve never used those words or phrases for it. It’s my world that’s in these pages, and a version of everyone’s world that we pass through sleepwalking every day, but Kishkan’s prose is that of someone who lives it more attentively than I’m able to. Somehow, though, I’m not so much jealous as grateful.

Kishkan has travelled fairly widely, so she’s also writing here about Ireland and Greece, two particular places that played important roles in her life before marriage and motherhood. Me, in my fifty-plus years, I’ve spent less than three months outside Canada, less than six weeks outside North America, but you know what? I think I can smell the wild field edges on a small Irish island, and the dry foliage along a dirt road in Greece, because I have that much faith in how she’s giving me back my home places in BC.

Glavin’s blurb called Mnemonic “erotic,” and while there’s eros aplenty here, I don’t know that it’s erotic so much as it’s simply an inclusive record of a person’s emotional life. For most of us, the erotic is part of how we live, so even though Kishkan’s careful to touch regularly on her passions and past relations, you’ll be disappointed if that’s what you’re reading Mnemonic for. (Unless you’re excited, I guess, by the description of a non-sexual nude modelling session for a painter more than thirty years before the book was written?)

Instead, I’d say that there’s also going to be a parallel lack if you’re here for the nature writing. This is a memoir about the emotional life of a woman intimately interested in the natural world, so if you’re expecting a book that’s focused on only one of those poles, you’re not going to find it. When this book was first published in 2011, I bought and gave away a few copies, and the book more than holds up over the succeeding years.

If you can set aside your assumptions and hopes, and read the book as it finds you, there’s every chance that you’re going to find something to love in Mnemonic.

(Cross-posted from my Substack: long story, but if you don't hustle, you don't get many readers in Substack's beautiful but walled garden.)


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