Hannah Fries reviews Unchopping a Tree, by W. S. Merwin, with Drawings by Liz Ward
A pastor recently reminded me that to remember is to re-member, to make whole. I thought of this after reading W. S. Merwin’s Unchopping a Tree, the way the writing is quite literally an act of re-membering, right down to the limbs Merwin instructs us to reattach to the tree trunk. It’s also a call to remember and make whole an often forgotten and wounded relationship to the natural world.
“Unchopping a Tree” originally appeared as a short (story? prose poem?) in Merwin’s 1970 prose collection The Miner’s Pale Children, yet it doesn’t feel all that far removed from his poetry. Newly published in book form—a slender, square hardcover—the text is given plenty of room to spread out and is beautifully accompanied by the drawings of Liz Ward, part of a series called The Interior Life of a Tree. For these drawings, Ward used studies of the cellular structure of trees. Elegant and simple, the art, placed next to the text, can almost be taken as instructional details, helpful illustrations for the task at hand.
Yet the task—putting back together, piece by piece, a tree that has been chopped down—is daunting, despite the matter-of-factness of Merwin’s language. It begins, as if skipping ahead of a missing introduction, “Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nest that have been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places.” Then, only half-reassuringly, Merwin continues, “It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed and mutilated.” Which, of course, they might have been. Either way, he notes, “you will be lucky if you can get through this stage without having to use machinery.”
What sort of machinery we don’t know, and the project gets only more complicated from there. The nests and stores of insects, birds, and mammals must all be repaired and put back in place, down to the shells of already-opened nuts. The tree must be delicately hoisted back up into position. There is tremendous room for error every step of the way, and significant risk that the repair work will have to be undone and fixed again. When it comes to the spiders’ webs, to the leaf’s “living bond with its point of attachment,” to the splinters and fibers of wood, Merwin warns that we do not have the spiders’ weaving equipment, nor any appropriate fixative or “duplicate of the original substance” with which to reattach things. “You must simply do the best you can.”
If this sounds akin to the plight of an environmental activist or restoration ecologist, that’s no mistake. Merwin’s instructions highlight the enormity of the job that now stands before any of us who feel the desire to make amends with the natural world we’ve so often and so handily destroyed. The task of “unchopping a tree” sounds fantastical, and yet the tone is serious, as if the narrator is attempting in his instructions to include a heavy dose of realism. When the tree is reassembled, there’s no guarantee that the sap will flow again, that the replaced moss, “now dead,” will come back alive, that the dried leaves will quicken again. If it all feels impossible, well, haven’t we all felt moments when the hard work of healing, restoring—making any great change—has seemed futile? The narrator anticipates our panic: “What more can you do? What more can you do?”
Amid this anxiety and doubt, however, Merwin offers glimmers of something else, some indication that it’s worth doing what needs to be done. “There is a certain beauty, you will notice at moments, in the pattern of the chips as they are fitted back into place . . . It will lead you on to speculations about the parentage of beauty itself, to which you will return.” And: “Practice, practice. Put your hope in that.” Which is to say, there’s hope and beauty in the act itself—the act of restoration, of attending to something with such precise care. Merwin should know. In 1977 the poet bought a nutrient-depleted former pineapple parcel in Maui, Hawaii, and began by planting a tree a year. Now his 19-acre property, once listed on soil survey maps as “wasteland,” is a miraculously diverse palm forest. He has, in a very real sense, followed his own instructions. Knowing this, I read Unchopping a Tree differently, for in remembering the forest, what it was, what it might be, Merwin has helped the forest re-create itself in a new form, not exactly as it was, but as something new. There is hope to be found in this.
Unchopping a Tree is a beautiful little book, a still-timely parable that avoids being preachy through its seeming whimsy. You do what you can, the poet seems to imply in both his very real ground work and in Unchopping a Tree—often one piece, one tree at a time. Then you move on to the next task. After all, he says, “others are waiting. Everything is going to have to be put back.”