Nonfiction Review by Susan Olding

Theresa Kishkan, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2011). Paperbound, 247 pp., $19.95.Mnemonic

Last autumn, we lost one of the old red maples on our tiny city lot. We had to take it down; it had been dying slowly from the inside for years and had become a serious threat to safety. I feared it, for if it fell, as a sister tree had done during the ice storm of 1998, it could crush my husband at his desk or our daughter in her bed. I hated it sometimes, too, for its colonies of pestilential pigeons and squirrels. But mostly I loved it, for its thick, rough bark, for its still majestic canopy, and for its stubborn endurance, growing to such a height and breadth on thin urban soil and standing fast over a changing streetscape for more than a hundred years. I often wondered, if it could talk, what stories that tree might tell about the inhabitants of the houses it overlooked.

There is no acer rubrum in Theresa Kishkan’s Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, but if there were, I know she would unlock its secrets. For Kishkan, trees are the keys to memory. Citified Proust found the past in the flavour of a madeleine, but she finds it in the scent of balsam, cedar, acorn, and olive. Her beautiful, original, and meditative book is both a (partial) story of her own life, and a hymn of praise to the trees that have sheltered and nurtured her from girlhood to her present age.

The seed for Mnemonic is an idea of Cicero’s—that memory can be systematically trained by recalling specific places—the buildings and rooms that we have inhabited during different phases of our lives. But when Kishkan tries to bring her own past to light in this way, instead of images of walls and windows and furniture, she experiences the presence of trees. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise, since her relationship to the arboreal world is more intimate than most. Having helped to build a home from logs harvested on her own land, the concept of tree and room for her are intricately entwined.

The mention of Cicero is no fluke. Kishkan studied the classics, and her range of reference is correspondingly broad and deep. For Mnemonic’s roots lie only partly in memory; the book is also grounded in the essay tradition, and partakes of the essay’s exploratory nature. Each chapter, while it centres around a specific period in the author’s life and the tree she associates with that time, also considers a particular idea—from the notion that we can trace our relationships by degrees through the past as well as in the present, to the meaning of family and belonging. Kishkan’s two great loves (apart from husband and children) are nature and art, and their interconnection or interpenetration is Mnemonic’s great theme. This association culminates in two of my favourite pieces, the wry and self-aware “Plantanus orientalis: Raven Libretto,” in which Kishkan describes her attempt, as an adult, to train her singing voice, and the magnificent “Arbutus menziesii: Makeup Secrets of the Byzantine Madonnas,” which, among many other things, sets out a method for painting an alluring woman.

These essays, in common with several others in the book, detail a method or a process, and this is fitting, for it is making, in all its many forms, that fascinates Kishkan and has been a constant in a full and rich life—one that has taken her from the coast of British Columbia to the coast of Nova Scotia, from the northern interior rainforest to the olive groves of Greece. With her gift for describing place, Kishkan easily brings her reader along to the trails and tavernas, the campgrounds and motels, and the tracts of wilderness where her stories occur. Yet one important spot, while mentioned in passing, does not receive its own chapter. That is the west coast of Ireland, where she lived briefly as a young woman and where, for a time, thought she might settle. Her novella, Inishbream (Goose Lane, 2001) is set there. But she returned to her native British Columbia. The towering trunks of that province’s evergreens and the spreading branches of its Garry Oaks seem to have been necessary to the growth of her own spirit.

The essay reaches its fullest flower in mature hands. Kishkan’s are practiced and confident, and her prose, while fresh and smooth, also accommodates the knottiness of genuine thought. Mnemonic may seem an easy read, but it richly rewards revisiting. If this book were a tree, it would have deep and thirsty roots; broad and elegant branches; its leaves would always be tipping toward the light; and its fruit would be tangy and sweet.

—Theresa Kishkan

As in The Malahat Review, 178, Spring 2012, 103-104