Chatting at a Dinner Party (Or: Holding Hands)
What if the world of books were one big dinner party? Or perhaps I mean some other metaphor—perhaps holding hands?*
Let’s stay with the dinner party for now. Sometimes a book is like a new guest at a dinner party of otherwise familiar people—a new energy that creates and directs energy into conversations in new ways.
Of course, that’s always true, in a sense—books live in a context. They’re produced by individuals who live at specific times when specific things are happening. Entire literary theories and theorists debate whether a book can be extracted from its time, and how to handle books that once expressed the best thinking of the time but that now are obviously (and painfully and dreadfully) flawed. But I’m not talking about that, today.
What I’m describing is a slightly different experience. While reading Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s To Speak for the Trees, I felt that this book could happily chat at a dinner party (or hold hands) with two other books I’ve read recently.**
One is Anne Bokma’s My Year of Living Spiritually. Both Beresford-Kroeger and Bokma are Canadians (and women), and both books talk about spirituality without the apologies some progressive societies and readers seem to expect. Bokma’s book is structured as a quest, during which she “tries on” various forms of non-religious spiritual belief and practice. Underlying the humour and game face with which Bokma tries singing, forest bathing, and magic mushrooms is a serious story of finding herself and evaluating her marriage.
The first half of Beresford-Kroeger’s book narrates her odd and lonely growing-up years in England and Ireland, and how her Celtic relatives embraced her presence and gave her--invested in her, really—the ancient wisdom nearly lost through colonization. In the last half of the book, she presents the Celtic Alphabet of Trees. Working her way through the ancient Ogham script, she shares why related trees are considered sacred and the properties for which they’re venerated.
To Speak for the Trees is also in conversation with my beloved Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I wrote a review of this book for Brevity five years ago, and my admiration of this book is unlimited. One of my favourite elements of the book is that it inspired me—and seems to inspire in others—an interested in learning NOT about some OTHER place, but about the place we live. Here. What’s out our own doors? Who has protected this land through the millennia, and whom has it sheltered?
Both writers speak from science and from deep wisdom. Both share indigenous knowledge of a specific place—knowledge that’s in danger of being lost and has long been dismissed. Knowledge that has much to teach us today as we ignore and wreck our one planet.
I don’t mean to say “If you liked this, you’ll love that.” I’m not an “others who bought this also bought” algorithm. But I do think that if you liked Braiding Sweetgrass, you might enjoy learning from Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s book. And if you’re generally leery of religion and spirituality (and even if you’re not), give Anne Bokma’s book a try—it’s a chance to spend time with an honest, adventurous writer.
This isn’t the first time I’ve described books in relationship to other books (sometimes including my own). For other times, clickhere.
I don’t have a deep or meaningful insight with which to end this post. Except, I guess, that in difficult times, like this past year and the past four years and all the years, even those extending into the future, sometimes it’s uplifting and energizing to think about ways human beings can live differently—with even more integrity, with love for each other and for our home, this one planet we share.
* Sometimes books seem to “hold hands” with other books. I know that books don’t have hands, Michael Dorsey from Tootsie, who said a tomato can’t sit down.
** This summer, Susan Scott, a consulting editor at The New Quarterly and community builder extraordinaire, led a workshop about Spiritual Memoirs for the Creative Nonfiction Collective. It gave me a new “dinner party” to consider.