Monday, December 30, 2013

Something New, Something Old: Nature As Witness in Angela Pelster's "Limber" and Michael Lesy's "Wisconsin Death Trip"

I am compelled to begin this post with any number of tree-related puns: something about “stretching one’s limbs” or “apples not falling far from the tree.” I could do better, of course.  Write about the deep roots of family trees and trees with families, and how even if you know nothing of trees, the book is sure to grow on you.  (Get it?). 

(Leaf it to me to end a paragraph with a tree pun.)  ((Get it again?))  

All this silly wordplay is the fault of Angela Pelster, whose spellbinding forthcoming essay collection, Limber, explores humanity’s intersection with the silent sentinels that grace our backyards. How easy it is to forget that trees even exist? We climb them, chop them, and once a year, even haul them into our homes under the guise of “Christmas spirit”; yet despite our interactions among them, they remain mostly invisible—at least until Pelster contextualizes their lives alongside our own.

Pelster writes of trees as if writing an unwritten chapter of our own biographies, linking our shared roots (last pun, I swear), so that we might better understand that human history is only a fraction of all history. Since Aristotle, we humans have proved famously adept at featuring ourselves at the center of our universe, though as Pelster reminds, by doing so, perhaps we’ve been barking up the wrong [pun omitted].

And now, for something old: Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, a book that since its inception in 1973 has successfully defied all classifications aside from “cult classic”—a distinction its surely earned. Who, after all, but a dedicated fan base could fall in love with Lesy’s curated newspaper reports on the ravages of disease and mental illness inflicted upon a small Wisconsin town in the late 19th century? Coupled alongside Lesy’s macabre newspaper reports are photographer Charles Van Schaick’s equally macabre black and white photos, each of which depicts the strangeness of this particular time and place in our forgotten history. In many ways, Michael Lesy is the anti-Laura Ingalls Wilder. While both write of little houses on the prairie, Lesy’s houses are filled with arson, diphtheria and suicide attempts—providing a portrait of a landscape we’ve rarely seen.

For the modern reader, these true accounts of the madness and illness that racked the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin serve as a moving testament to the hardships of the era. But the written accounts are only half the story. Van Schaick’s photos of the townspeople—both living and dead—serve as visual proof for the otherwise unbelievable narrative: that back before the days of baseball and apple pie, small town America’s greatest past time was dying tragically or going insane.

What was the cause of the townspeople’s madness? Something in the water, or the air, or the trees? So far removed from the events themselves, today’s readers can try to pin the madness on a pine tree, or contaminated water, or the North Woods’ everlasting winters. But no answer will ever suffice.  The horror resides not in the events themselves, but in the knowledge that the trees remain the only witnesses to the destruction, and they’re not talking.     

While Pelster implores us to open our eyes to what stands before us, Lesy asks us to gaze upon what lingers behind us as well. It’s as if the books offer conflicting truths on nature: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, you will someday die. But even if somebody does hear it, you will someday die anyway. Both authors remind us that the nature of nature is that it cares little for us, but we—the sentient beings in the relationship—should know to care for it.

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