Reading Local: Naked Trees by John Terpstra

Friday 19 October 2012

When I was young, maybe under ten, I appreciated trees far more than I do today.

In youth, trees fuel imagination. Branches cast eerie shadows on walls and drum against windowpanes. For my sister and I, branches were pillars, holding up mismatched sheets, when we built forts. We climbed trees, knocking crab apples to the ground, careful not to land on them when we descended.

I still remember the smell of walnuts on my hands after collecting buckets of them, my grandfather following behind us on his tractor, so they wouldn’t get stuck in the blades. The same grandpa gathered abandoned nests, still clinging to trees, for us to wow our peers with at school. The three of us would go on hikes, finding shelter on the soft and needly ground beneath pine trees.

Each fall, when the leaves exploded into colours like they are right now, in classrooms and at home, we’d press leaves between sheets of wax paper, the residue clinging to our hands. We’d paint autumn trees, dipping our brushes into red, orange, yellow, brown, and gold paint.

Today, three medium-sized trees jut from the lawn of my apartment building, but I could hardly describe them. Despite the unique characteristics of each type of tree, I couldn’t tell an ash from a chestnut, or a maple from an elm.

Hamilton isn’t a city one would quickly associate with trees, but local, award-winning writer John Terpstra, himself a woodworker, does. In 1990, he wrote Naked Trees, a collection of prose and poetry that has recently been rereleased by Hamilton publisher Wolsak and Wynn. Terpstra’s words are accompanied by, fittingly, woodcuttings by Ontario visual artist Wesley Bates.

Inspired by what is missing from Native Trees of Canada by R.C. Hosie, a volume that gives the names and identifying features (shape, leaves, bark, habitat) of trees, Terpstra’s goal is to write about the experience of trees, which he does with great passion.

Many of the trees, all deciduous, in Terpstra’s collection predate the buildings that line our city streets, yet they are in constant conflict with urbanity. Terpstra writes with affection about urban trees that are pruned to accommodate overhead wires and the limbs of trees that are “neatly sliced” by chainsaws. In the continuous battle between nature and urbanity, there is no clear winner. In one piece, a branch cuts through power lines after being sliced from a tree trunk, cutting electricity on its way down.

“The silver maple stood between the house and the street, overhanging both. But it made a tactical error this past winter when it dropped one of its branches during the storm,” writes Terpstra. “The branch cut through the power line on its way down, so we lost the electricity for a few hours, and landed on the street, completely blocking traffic.”

Naked Trees subtly urges readers to pay more attention to the maples, walnuts, and other trees that punctuate Hamilton's urban landscape, not simply walking by them, but pausing to enjoy them for both their strength and fragility.

Sometimes a certain book is perfect for a certain time of year. There are books I reread every Christmas, and some that are best read on a beach in the summer. Autumn, and the "liberation of leaves," are important themes in the second half of Naked Trees, making it the perfect read for these shorter, cooler days, accompanied with some apple cider and maybe a pumpkin loaf.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jessica!

    I had the chance to meet John several years ago, when he was out and about, promoting his book "The Boys". He's a lovely man and that book, which beautifully presents the lives of his wife's three brothers (all who had muscular dystrophy), is worth a read. Definitely!!


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