Just behind the fence of our small, much-coveted urban yard stands an enormous, indomitable mulberry tree. It blooms obliviously, arrogantly over our property line, shadowing our lawn. Each year we spend the first half of the summer picking up the overripe fruit the tree—along with the help of gray squirrels, starlings, robins and sparrows—drops on our precious, carefully tended grass. Sometimes the dog eats the berries only to vomit up little gelatinous piles of them. The mulberries collect in our garbage, oozing liquid, attracting flies, their rotting flesh casting a gloomy perfume over our tiny green oasis. Last year we had limbs that had grown over our property line removed, which reduced the problem, but did not entirely extinguish it.
When recently I complained of the nuisance of this mulberry—an invasive species, after all—to a friend, she suggested making jam from the berries. “They’re really very sweet and delicious, not as tart as a raspberry,” she explained. I felt sufficiently shamed. After all, hadn’t I worried over the lack of trees in our concrete jungle? Hadn’t I been counting the number of times over the past few years I’d noted them being hacked down to make way for, well, more concrete? Didn’t I insist on trips to the woods most weekends, driving sometimes hours to stand amidst maples and firs and oaks, marveling at the colors in fall, pointing excitedly at the first green buds in spring after a long hard New England winter?
I suspect that Yelizaveta P. Renfro would have shared in my friend’s opinion that our mulberry problem wasn’t a problem at all, but a source of inspiration, mystery, and even abundance. In her collection of essays, Xylotheque, Renfro explores trees and the profound impact they have had on her life, weaving experiences from both her childhood and early adulthood with meditations on the stalwart bristlecone pine, the adaptable oak, and the awe-inspiring redwood, all of which stood as silent witnesses. The title of the book, which means wood collection, also includes memories she has co-opted from loved ones, her nostalgia “not for times and places of our own pasts, but for times and places of our forebears’ pasts, for imagined pasts that we ourselves never inhabited.”
While there are moments in the collection when the trees disappear from the narratives, it hardly matters. Renfro’s essays are profoundly moving, written in a rich, deeply felt voice touched with wistfulness and melancholy that resists sentimentality and is unafraid of the violence that is a significant characteristic of both life and death. In “Translation: Perevod,” she re-envisions the courtship of her parents in Soviet Russia while simultaneously exploring the complexity and contentiousness of her relationship with her mother throughout childhood and adolescence. When she describes watching her mother, who had recently moved from her native Russia to California, attempt to plant a birch—a tree common in Russia—in the backyard of the family’s suburban home, Renfro states,“Whatever it is she is trying to do by growing a birch here, she will fail,” noting, at the same time, that “my mother will be happy only if the tree lives.” In this way Renfro connects the tree to the human condition, her mother’s inability to ever fully disconnect herself from the life she left behind, a life she had not wanted to leave.
All of the essays in the collection are outstanding, although Renfro is perhaps at her strongest when she explores the inevitability of death, both for humans and our botanical counterparts. In “Living at Tree Line,” she tells the story of working for a time at a cemetery where she sold burial plots, interspersing these tales with observations about the bristlecone pine, a tree that can live several thousand years. Despite the tree’s longevity, it too is impermanent; in one instance Renfro describes a Ph.D. candidate who cut down a bristlecone and later determined that it was nearly 5,000 years old, the oldest of its species. “Drought, earthquake, flood, lightning, native tribes, fire, European explorers, corrosive winds, the bearers of Manifest Destiny, and ice could not kill,” writes Renfro, “but one graduate student did.”
In “Quercus,” Renfro revisits her short-lived career as a newspaper reporter, when she was frequently assigned to write police briefs, usually about acts of violence or accidents that most often resulted in death. “The dearth of information, the bare-bones reporting,” says Renfro, “is a common feature of the brief.” But Renfro could not reconcile the cold, succinct style of journalistic prose with the lives they allegedly represented. Too often she found herself imagining these people, what they had been thinking and feeling mere seconds before their car hit a cement embankment or a bullet entered their brains. She couldn’t resist ruminating on the victims, their families, and their stories that would never be told. But Renfro juxtaposes the police briefs she wrote with the acorns of pin oaks that her daughter scattered around the house. Acorns are, quite obviously, the start of life, a beret-hatted symbol of hope, and they help Renfro sustain her own sense of hope against the violent backdrop of her profession. When she notes that the root systems of oaks “will meet, grapple, cohere,” a younger, healthier tree “help[ing] the older oak, prolonging its life,” she is insistent: “They will help each other. They will both live longer in companionship. This can be true of trees as well as people.”
In these essays, the topic that perhaps eludes Renfro the most is the tree itself. In “Song of the Redwood Tree,” she asks her three year-old daughter, “What is a tree?” only to have her child laugh at the absurdity of the question. But Renfro admits: “I wanted this most basic information from a child. I knew trees were deeply important to me, but my ideas were convoluted. A tree was a metaphor for everything in my life . . . I could make it into my own image. But I could not say what it was.”
In this way trees are much like the humans about whom Renfro writes: she can imagine them, reveal their contradictions and imperfections, but she cannot say with certainty who they truly are. This ineffability is true not only for the trees and people that have inspired Renfro, but for Renfro’s essays as well, which capture the mystery of life, its joys and sorrows, in some beautifully inexplicable, indefinable way.
About the Reviewer
Lenore Myka's fiction was selected as a notable short story by The Best American Non-Required Reading of 2013 and a distinguished story by The Best American Short Stories of 2008. She was the winner of the 2013 Cream City Review and Booth Journal Fiction Contests. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in New England ReviewIowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, West Branch, and Massachusetts Review, among others.