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Authors: Theresa Kishkan

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BOOK: Mnemonic
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Phantom Limb
(Thistledown Press, 2007)

Red Laredo Boots
(New Star Books, Transmontanus series, 1996)


The Age of Water Lilies
(Brindle & Glass, 2009)

A Man in a Distant Field
(The Dundurn Group, 2004)

(Goose Lane, trade edition, 2001)

Sisters of Grass
(Goose Lane Editions, 2000)

Inishbream: a novella
(Barbarian Press, 1999)


Black Cup
(Beach Holme/Press Porcepic, 1993)

Morning Glory
(Reference West, 1991)

I Thought I Could See Africa
(High Ground Press, 1991)

a book of trees

Theresa Kishkan

Copyright © 2011 by Theresa Kishkan.

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher or a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). To contact Access Copyright, visit
or call 1-800-893-5777.

Cover illustration:

Cover and page design by Julie Scriver.

Printed in Canada.

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Kishkan, Theresa, 1955-

Mnemonic [electronic resource]: a book of trees / Theresa Kishkan.

Includes bibliographical references.

Type of computer file: Electronic monograph in HTML format.

Issued also in print format.

ISBN 978-0-86492-706-4

1. Kishkan, Theresa, 1955-. 2. Novelists, Canadian (English) — 20th century — Biography. 3. Authors, Canadian (English) — 20th century — Biography. 4. Trees — Social aspects. 5. Natural history. I. Title.

PS8571.I75Z467 2011a      C813'.54      C2011-902890-5

Goose Lane Editions acknowledges the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF), and the government of New Brunswick through the Department of Wellness, Culture and Sport.

Goose Lane Editions

Suite 330, 500 Beaverbrook Court

Fredericton, New Brunswick


For my brothers Dan, Steve, and Gordon Kishkan

“. . . impossible to imagine a world without them.”



Quercus garryana


Quercus virginiana

Degrees of Separation

Olea europaea

Young Woman with Eros on her Shoulder

Thuja plicata

Nest Boxes

Platanus orientalis

Raven Libretto

Pinus ponderosa

A Serious Waltz

Fagus sylvatica


Arbutus menziesii

Makeup Secrets of the Byzantine Madonnas

Populus tremuloides

Cariboo Wedding


A Coda




This is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell.

— Tobias Wolff,
This Boy's Life


Midway on our life's journey, I found myself

in dark woods, the right road lost. To tell

about those woods is hard — so tangled and rough . . .

The Inferno of Dante
, Canto 1, lines 1-3

On a forested acreage on the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula, my husband John and I built a house, raised our children, and sent them off into the world. Most mornings of my adult life, I've awoken to these woods. They are never the same though you'd have to live here to know that. For instance, in wind, the trees bend and arc wildly, some of them falling to earth but usually deep within the woods, not near the house, so visitors wouldn't know of their demise. At those times, I find myself wondering about their secret lives for it seems that they thrash and sway in joy, like Bacchantes. And stories abound of trees that live as people live, with the same sorrows and pleasures.

In winter, in snow, the evergreens are most perfectly themselves, heavily burdened. In late winter, the alder stems and buds are russet, giving way to green in spring; in fall, the alder leaves don't turn orange or yellow but dull brown, or they fall still green to the ground. Sometimes I glimpse an unexpected flutter of white down the bank below the house and eventually realize that the dogwoods are out, the bracts as large as Kleenex surrounding the small greenish-purple flowers. In fall, the leaves of the dogwoods are gorgeous, deep pink and scarlet. In high summer, no one would know that each spring the arbutus tree looks as though it's dying; this is because there are plants around it that I water over the summer and the arbutus receives too much irrigation for its liking. It does survive, though.

There are many maples in our woods, some of them mossy with age. Ten years ago, in autumn, I called a painter friend to ask, “If you were painting the bigleaf maples right now, would you use Naples yellow?” He mused for a bit, answered, “No, they're too orange,” then called me back to say, “Yes.” A neighbour's daughter once raced down a forest trail with a huge fallen maple leaf on her face, keeping it in place by holding her face up, laughing as she ran. A perfect disguise, I thought, so close to Halloween.

In a treatise on oratory,
On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
, the Roman statesman Cicero advises the training of one's memory, specific to oration and rhetoric, in a systematic and logical manner called a method of loci. By memorizing the architectural space of a particular building and by attaching elements of a speech to particular features of the building and forming an image of the two, a structural mnemonic is created. Variations of this discipline existed and persisted well beyond antiquity and traces remain in our contemporary figures of speech: “in the first place, in the second place,” we say to keep our place in an argument or discourse.

I had this in mind — those palaces of memory. Every time I found myself remembering, I tried to walk myself through a gracious building with nooks and window seats. Instead, I had such a clear and visceral sensation — more than a picture, more than an image — of a tree. The smell of dry grass carried memories of fire and the trees that presided over those memories were the Garry oaks of Vancouver Island where I lived as a child. Recalling a brief romance on a Greek island — I was surrounded by olive trees, their grey-green leaves shimmering in the heat of that lost time.

I also had in mind John Evelyn's
Sylva: A Discourse of Forest Trees & the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions
. Ostensibly, the book is an inventory of Britain's arboreal holdings undertaken to address the shortage of timber available for shipbuilding (and thus exploration), transportation of every sort, fuel for the manufacturing of glass, smelting tin and iron, brewing, cloth dyeing, and for domestic use; in short, the necessities of Empire. Evelyn achieves this, but the book is also a love song to trees in all their nuanced beauty. He wrote, “Here I am again to give a general notice of the peculiar excellency of the roots of most trees, for fair, beautiful, chamleted and lasting timber, applicable to many purposes; such as formerly made hafts for daggers, hangers, knives, handles for staves, tabacco-boxes, and elegant joyners-work, and even for some mathematical instruments of the larger size, to be had either in, or near the roots of many trees . . .”

In the first place
. . . What do I know about the habits of trees? I'm not a botanist and barely passed high-school biology. I can name them, count them, keep lists of their occurrence in landscapes familiar and far-flung. How we once saw a Douglas fir on a ledge of rock at Island in the Sky, within Canyonlands National Park in Utah, far from its usual range. How I went to the western red cedars at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, when I lived for a time in London and touched their bark for the remnant perfume on my hands. What do I know about them? I intend to find out. I intend to revisit, in memory, significant trees of my past, assisted by field guides and assorted historical texts which have informed my process of learning and seeing.

In the second place
. . . Could I write my life by remembering the groves, imaginary or real, of my childhood, my girlhood, the painful years of young adulthood, of motherhood? Separated by time, by geography, by mythology — for who among us doesn't embroider in order to find the pattern of beauty and meaning in the plain clothing of experience? — the trees in the grove would congregate with botanical unease perhaps at first, those accustomed to the Libyan Sea touching boughs with those growing along the edges of the Salish Sea. But I think of the teaching gardens, the “physick” gardens, the utilitarian gardens of subsistence, and I hope that my memory plantation might have something to say about relationships between species without any apparent connection. Companion plantings, if you like.

My children have left home, the house echoing with their absence; yet like young trees their shadows leave us with a story told by the fire, season after season. In the shadows I see myself, dreaming my way back to the beginning.
I found myself in dark woods
. . . But not completely dark. Sunlight filtered through the wide boughs of maples.
To tell about those woods is hard
. . . I will tell of the trees, their bark and their shady leaves, each of them in its place. I have a few good guides to help me with my tale.

BOOK: Mnemonic
13.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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