die Buche, das Buch: Fiona Tinwei Lam in Conversation with Robert Finley

Robert Finley

Robert Finley, whose creative nonfiction piece "The Beech Tree" appears in the Malahat's Summer 2017 issue, discusses biophony among flora and fauna as well as sensory texture in lyricism in this Q&A with Canadian writer, Fiona Tinwei Lam.


Robert Finley gardens in St. John's, where he teaches at Memorial. His books and collaborations include The Accidental Indies, A Ragged Pen, and K. L. Reich.

When reading your creative nonfiction piece, "The Beech Tree," the lushness of the flora and fauna that you describe conjured up the Garden of Eden. I immediately thought of Bernie Krause's concept of "biophony"the layered sounds of non-human life in nature. Can you talk about how you integrated sound into the writing (e.g. onomatopoeia, consonance, assonance, alliteration, rhythm, flow and pacing, etc.)?

Oh god, I love that notion, "biophony." And yes, it really was the idea of a chorus of voices that I wanted to get at in this piece. Don McKay has this wonderful aside in Paradoxides, in "Thingamajig":

Thing (Old English): an assembly, a gathering
Thingan (Old English): to invite, to address
Althing (Icelandic): the parliament

"An object," he goes on to say, "is a thing under surveillance."

The idea of a parliament of things, in which voices have an equal weight, in which we too can raise our voices, I am very partial to.

Writing, for me, has always been about rhythm. I'll start with a line that has a beat that catches me up. Drafts are messy and little survives from them, but I work and rework a piece until it's lodged in my head complete and then I can work over lines while I walk, or in the half-sleep before waking. When I notice something useful, an internal rhyme say, that has appeared accidentally, or serendipitously, ("pain" and "rain," for an example from this piece), I'm sometimes able to develop or extend it (in this case with the linking use of "here"). Things accrue in this way, organically, and at one point they will click into place in a way that feels inevitable—inevitable primarily in terms of the rhythm. And then I know it's done. This is part of what I like about the (ill-defined, open ended) form of the essay. It's very messy to begin with. Clotted with images and possibilities. And then it gradually takes on the shape of itself. That, and that the essay almost always feels smarter than I do… knows things that I don't, and points them out by way of its rhythms, rhymes, sounds. "Look, look here!" it says. "For heaven's sake, pay attention!"

I love how you name the specific trees, other plants, and the birds in your piece, conveying a sense of abundance, variety and biodiversity. How did you learn about the names of trees and plants, and how was naming and listing essential to this piece?

A great disappointment to myself, I've never been one of those people who knows or remembers the names for birds, plants, flowers..., much as I want to be. So the catalogue of names in this piece is both a memory exercise for me and a learning exercise. I grew up in the garden place described, and, to be fair, was always aware that there was a great deal going on, per square foot, in that landscape… but I wasn't especially well informed about its particulars. I've been really interested, for a long time, in how rich and diverse that border land between the domestic and the wild can be—where things have been attended to, even cherished, but also "let go" over time. How populous it feels, relative, for example, to the uniformity of a purely built or designed or "kept" landscape. Populous and reassuring. That's a feeling you can still get without having to know the details. When we finally had to let go of the family home, and a bit desperate to find some way of holding on to its traces, I set about constructing this "winter garden" of names, and enlisted some help from folks who DO know the names for things; Sue Sirrs, a landscape artist and architect in Halifax, Gail Rubin, a close friend and expert birder, and others. I got them to walk around with me and introduce me formally to many of these childhood acquaintances whose names I'd never learned. The sense of plenitude, I think, comes across—that wild parliament of intelligences. What's probably lost in the piece is that each thing named is not a species but an individual, and many of them are, if you like, significant personal acquaintances. I say their names now, having learned them, with a sense of ceremony.

Did David George Haskell's The Songs of Trees or Peter Wohlleben's Hidden Life of Trees have any influence on your writing or thinking about trees?

I write ridiculously slowly… a little piece like this one over a course of years. Part of the reason is the reading. Especially for this piece, the writing being done just now that revises the terms by which we attend to the things around us is, of course, extraordinary, and keen with urgency. And also very hard to put down. These you've mentioned, also Robert MacFarlane's wonderful work in Landmarks and Wild Places, some older works like Richard Mabey's Beechcomings and Colin Tudge's The Secret Life of Trees, Hugh Raffles amazing Insectopedia, Anna Tsing's Mushroom at the End of the World, Kathleen Jamie's work, J.A. Baker's incredible meditation on The Peregrine to name just a few. It's a rabbit hole. And very snug for a winter's reading or two or three. But the most direct influence on this piece wasn't a book but an ongoing work by poet and visual artist Marlene Creates. About half an hour out of St. John's you'll find her Boreal Poetry Garden—a network of paths through the five acres of boreal forest that surround her house and through which she will guide you with readings from a series of site specific poems and observations. The experience is magical. The forest is made populous for the listener with Marlene's exquisite care and careful attention to particular, individual relationships within the place. She's at home there, but also letting it all happen around her with tremendous grace and humility; this is the way that I wanted to inhabit my own place in this piece, and in my memory: as a place cherished and let go.

Why is the beech tree central to the piece?

The beech tree overarches the piece partly because it is physically at the centre of the place described here—a massive tree right up at the side of the house; in fact the house was supposed to be a few feet longer at that end, but was cut off short in order to accommodate the tree. But it's also got a fair bit of figurative weight: "beech" is a word of old English/Germanic origin. It shares its root with "book": in modern German die Buche is a beech tree, and das Buch is a book. There are various speculations about this bookish association: its wood favoured in book-making; its smooth living bark especially receptive to inscription. There is a Roman inscription said to have been cut into the bark of a beech tree: Crescunt illae; crescent amores/ "As these letters grow, so grows our love." But inasmuch as the piece is preoccupied with memory and record, I found myself pretty caught up in the idea of the tree—so intimately tied up with our lives there in that house (overarching the house, literally taking up our breath, our words, party to our thoughts, our work, our conversations)—as a place of living record. It keeps a kind of chronicle in which our passing through is marked or mentioned, and that my own efforts try in their small way to imitate. I'm thinking of Gary Snyder's lines: "As the cricket's soft autumn hum/ is to us/ so are we to the trees/ as are they/ to the rocks and the hills."

There is also, of course, a long tradition that sees the tree as a doorway between worlds. The beech tree in this piece is just such doorway that swings open, like a book.

There are so many fabulous sensory textures in your lyric piece. The piece as a whole feels like a kind of tapestry woven out of the elements in nature. The piece also gives the sense that the experiences described while working in the garden are occurring in a single day, although possibly the day's work was a structure used to bring together and frame a number of experiences.  Can you talk about your process in drafting, shaping and honing it? How did it begin, and did you add layers one by one, for example weaving in the origins of certain words?

Yes. Very much woven together… over a stretch of time and from lots of notes. Maybe "woven" in an organic sense would be most honest—like a tangled garden itself where things spring up in the accident of light falling here or there. The piece is also part of a series though, eventually to be collected into a small book on home, on how we make a place for ourselves for the little bit of time that we are here, and so it was framed from the outset by this larger enterprise in terms of its preoccupations, and also to some extent in terms of form. This piece belongs to my stepfather. The others to my mother and father, and to the remarkable place they made, the three of them together, during their lives in my home city of Halifax. As a whole, the collection spirals inward, beginning offshore, then the city, then the garden around the beech tree, then the house, and in the process it looks at a few of the ways that we locate ourselves in place and make some kind of a nest for ourselves there: horticulturally for this piece, and for the others, through charts, photographs, and architecture. Each piece is governed by a visual counter of some kind—a photograph, a chart… in this case a leaf. And each of them, as does this piece, tries to collapse a stretch of time into a present moment governed by that counter, and, as you point out, animated by memory.

How would you say your writing has changed over time? Would you have written this piece in this way ten years ago, twenty years ago?

Oh what an interesting question! I grew up in a house where there was a strong belief in the power of the word to effect change in the world. To be honest, twenty years ago I was, I think, much more confident in my writing's ability to do just that, to effect change, on its own. The piece would have had some of that bravado in it: would have been funnier, quicker, more playful, lighter… (hopefully as Calvino means, quoting Valéry, "like a bird, not a feather"). I suppose I feel a bit quieter now, though still participating, quietly, in a larger conversation. But then it's also true that the losses that are the subject of this piece would not have happened yet, 20 years ago—so perhaps these changes in the writing are specific to the project, which is at heart elegiac, and not to the time that has passed. Perhaps I'll hold on to that possibility for the moment, and wait to see what happens next.

You chose to write this piece as lyric prose. Why did you chose lyric prose over poetry (i.e. what was it about the subject matter that made it most suitable for lyric prose)?

I just love the essay as a form, and especially here, at the lyric end of its spectrum. For all kinds of reasons: I love the way sound—rhythm, rhyme, assonance, breath…—can be buried in the prose line so that it is manifest in the reader's feet and belly before it is caught by reader's eye and mind; I love the range of voice—from a rhymed couplet to a fragment of dialogue to an extended argument—that it can accommodate, side by side, so easily, without warning or apology; I love that its first principle, its very name as a form, attests to incompleteness, to its being partial—the essay, from essayer, to try or attempt something; I love the way it can fuse seemingly disparate things in a way that makes meaning. Like lyric, the essay, I think, is preoccupied more with the moment than movement—it can hold something up to the light and turn it around. At its centre is a pause, a little silence before speech. I like that too, that little catch in the voice… in a person, and in a piece of writing too. Perhaps this moment is slightly more sustained in the essay. I'm not sure about that, but certainly the moment of this piece is one that I wanted to draw out, attend to, roll around in, and the essay lets me do that.

Is there anything you wanted to add about any other writers or specific essays/poems/writings that have profoundly influenced your writing or work?

Hmmm… I want to say "All of it" in answer to this question. But specific to this piece and the collection it is a part of I suppose there is a kind of permission I've felt from reading Sebald, and more recently, J.A. Baker's truly remarkable The Peregrine. Both of them eschew, to a large extent, character and plot and argument in favour of a kind of texture, a tone, a form of attention. I like that. Books that go nowhere, but attend to something with great care. Where nothing happens. But everything is happening all the time.

Fiona Tinwei Lam

Fiona Tinwei Lam

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