“When but a child, I learned that our ancestors came out of the trees, stood upright on the savannahs, and became human.” So begins John Leland’s essay collection Readings in Wood. A nature writer, Leland makes his home in the southern Appalachian mountains of Rockbridge County, Virginia, a region known for its wilderness and as a repository of American history dating back to the Revolution. Against this backdrop, each piece interrogates what it means to be wild or domesticated, native or transplant, deliverer or destroyer.
The book’s subtitle is What the Forest Taught Me. Its twenty-six essays “comprise dictation taken from the spirit moving over the face of the deep, dark forest that rings the valley in which I find myself, a mongrel testament of science, faith, superstition, and disbelief I have learned from sitting on tree trunks.” Leland addresses these within a network of additional subjects—mathematics, engineering, histories human and arboreal and geologic. Moving effortlessly between the vernaculars of taxonomy, Shakespearian prosody, and mysticism, he conjures visions of forests in sickness and in health. With a historian’s keen retrospective gaze and a seer’s preternatural foresight, he proffers withering pronouncements about humanity’s detached cruelty and unthinking destruction of our environment and ourselves. His prophet’s rage is held in check, however, by his love of scientific minutiae and weird but true facts about the natural world.
Each essay places a single aspect of the forest under a magnifying glass in order to reveal the rigorous order belied by nature’s seeming chaos. For example: the delta of veins that irrigates a maple leaf is formed by the nascent leaf itself as it matures within its bud. In explaining this phenomenon, Leland borrows analogies from unlikely places: the hydraulics of a sewer system, the network of the Trans-Canadian Highway, the geometric intricacies of origami. Elsewhere, he informs us that the leaves of the oak tree exhibit phyllotaxis, growing around the trunk in a regular and specific pattern that correlates mathematically to the Fibonacci ratio 2/5. Nature’s hidden elegance and erudition contrast with our erroneous belief that we are exceptionally different than other living things. Occasionally, our disconnect with nature borders on the absurd: in the essay “Shit,” a meditation on all things scatological, Leland provides detailed instructions on the proper disposal of waste on the trail. The lesson here: human beings are the only species that don’t know how to crap in the woods.
Like “Shit,” some of the essays conclude with a wink and a nod or a wry punch line. However, there is always a trace of solemnity around the edges, reminding us that in the end, humanity is nature’s dupe. When read as a whole, the essays blur into a landscape of thematic preoccupations with mankind’s conflicting impulses to protect and to conquer and the sharp juxtaposition of human history and the slow march of biological evolution—our time head-to-head with God’s time. Again and again, Leland exposes our central limitation: the inability to understand that time operates both more slowly and more rapidly than we can perceive. Even as he encourages the reader to “Lay your sleeping bag here on the loam filling this cabin gone so long there are no walls, and feed imagination as you feed a fire on a hearth three generations old," he refuses to romanticize the setting. Though it seems to have existed since time immemorial, the land was tilled into fields just a hundred years ago and reclaimed by a forest whose trees are not the ancients they appear to be. Three generations, then, is nothing; thus, the very notion of permanence is always in question. Notably, there are chapters on leaves, breezes, and other ephemera, but there is no chapter on roots. Instead, Leland draws our attention to constant and cyclical movement: flowers’ faces turning to follow the sun, mangrove swamps that appear forested with ancient and perambulating trees, the measured unfurling of budding leaves.
Likewise, events in human history—even those that seem indelibly seared into our collective memory or inextricable from the very fabric of a place—are all too soon forgotten, obfuscated by the seemingly slow crawl of time and our own amnesia. The tension that emerges from recalibrated notions of what is old and what is new is nowhere more evident than in the essay “What Place is This? Where are We Now?”. Writing about Virginia massacre sites and Civil War battlefields, Leland observes how time and the landscape itself conspire to diminish the loss of arboreal and human life: trees are felled, names are forgotten, and the forest rises from the ashes of conflict, obscuring battle sites and the places where unknown numbers of people met their end.
Life is always lost; that is another truth. As it is in the wild, death in these essays is ordinary and banal. Leland recounts riding his mountain bike “over Antietam quartzite, named after stones dyed red on September 17, 1862, with the blood of 22,000 Americans”; coolly, he muses about the molds and mycelia that comprise the “many-colored fungal coat” that will wrap “round our rotting bodies." At times the essays take an almost too dispassionate tone, as if reflecting nature’s disregard for human pain. Combined with the masses of scientific data, such offhandedness can take the narrative sharply towards the didactic. But, though some parts seem emotionally detached, others grip with an intensity of feeling, fanning the flames of a nostalgia that might be remote from us as readers, but which Leland invites to appropriate as our own: “Calmer are the memories cedar heartwood evokes, ghosts of Christmas past and Christmas trees long stripped of ornaments and burned on Twelfth Night, wool sweaters fresh from summer storage, and the broken twigs from back when you thought you might escape whatever haunted you by climbing up a tree.”
There can be no faith without doubt, and notes of fatalism creep in now and again. Despite the cycles of birth and death, the past can never be resurrected or recapitulated in its entirety. And, despite human efforts to live within and alongside the natural world, we flourish at the expense of its slow demise. “To this we in this country’ve come, that wilderness is now an eighty-year-old logged-out leftover." Of his future grandchildren, he comments, “Theirs will be forests vastly different from those I walk”; but, he adds philosophically, “while I would preserve as much of these as possible, I too walk woods my parents’ parents would find diminished."
If the opening pages of Readings in Wood are haunted by “the gray ghosts of fallen chestnuts” and mourn the ash and hemlocks that have been ravaged by the blight and invasive species that have made the forest their home, the final pages offer a seed of optimism: “[I]f I can stand upon a once-ravaged ridge and think myself alone with wilderness, deceived though I be, there’s hope my grandson and daughter too will find, in whatever woods grow here in their day, the same solace I find in mine." All in the world succumbs eventually, but ultimately, fatalism does not prevail; though it can’t ever be remade like it was, the forest can yet elicit wonder, revealing its resilience and the workings of a divine order that is at once small and still and overwhelming in its vastness.
Mitch Nakaue is a native of Oregon and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. She lives and works in St. Louis.
Readings in Wood: What the Forest Taught Me
by John Leland
The University of South Carolina Press, 2015
Paperback $19.95, ISBN: 978-1-61117-458-8
E-book $18.99, ISBN: 978-1-61117-459-5