In Xylotheque: Essays, Yelizaveta Renfro has given us an arresting collection of lyric essays with striking black-and-white photos that all orbit around her connection to the trees that have surrounded her at various times in her life. In case you were wondering (and I was), a xylotheque is a repository or collection of wood. Renfro takes as jumping-off points the trees she remembers from her youth in Riverside, California, the trees she visits as a parent on excursions with her own children, and the trees she can see in her Omaha neighborhood now as an adult. As the word anthology etymologically means a collection of flowers, here we have a treasury of trees that come to mean many things for the writer as well as for the reader.
These lyric pieces range not only across topics as broad as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sprawlification of Southern California but also to subjects as intimate as an argument between a mother and a daughter. This is a wistful collection, and Renfro stitches personal longing, regret, and reminiscence into her detailed and fascinating taxonomies of trees.
We read here about the history of the ancient bristlecone pine alongside anecdotes of the ways women might navigate family nostalgia with both their daughters and their own mothers. We read about petrified forests in Arizona just as we read about how a laconic grandfather approaches his anxious, angry young granddaughter.
Renfro was once a reporter, and her prose is blunt yet layered. She writes of her own memories and family lore, all the while exploring the various ways we each try to make sense of story, how we all try to get at the truth around us. She uses her reporter’s training as a springboard for reveries on how we each try to make meaning out of our own experiences in this world:
I cannot make use of the inverted pyramid to tell you of my oak. It bears no news, no tidings. Perhaps the earth whispers to it that autumn is approaching. The wind blows, the leaves prepare to crisp, the coursing of life in the trunk slows. When I write of the tree, my words are deflected by its corrugated bark. They fall short. The tree has no need for language, and yet I try to invent it and reinvent it in words.
In Xylotheque, words come up against the natural time and again. Renfro makes it her project to square how language both does and does not account for nature, how words might capture what it means to physically be in this world. In this collection, each essay takes as its topic the way language and human meaning-making both reflect and inflect the natural world around us. We all attempt to understand our time here on Earth, and Renfro lets us in on how she derives sustenance as well as inspiration from the trees that for her have served as emotional touchstones as well as memento mori.
As well, for her trees are multivalent. They are life’s lodestars, and she recalls their guidance in the various sites of memory and experience she details in this collection. As a 12-year-old, she has a moment of revelation running through a Soviet forest:
You trust the trees. . . . You don’t want to be swallowed by time, pressed away in its folds. You don’t want to forget or be forgotten. You want to live forever and for there to be meaning, everywhere, all the time. And you don’t want the meaning to be in blue jeans or hamburgers. You realize that you want the meaning to be in the sky and the earth and the trees, in what preceded us, in what we recognize as home, more elemental than the name of a nation or a political system.
Xylotheque is a book of lovely, lucid prose that drifts along and over accounts that are profound yet accessible. We read of truly moving moments, but the writing is never precious or portentous. Renfro manages to make us think deeply without our even being aware of it.
She lovingly recalls her childhood among the orange groves of California:
Looking down from the Box Spring Mountains, the orange groves are needlepoint, an elaborate embroidering upon the land. Dark green burrs set at regular intervals, the trees are globular, their full branches skirting the ground, their shiny ovate leaves present all year round, unchanging but for the cycle of fruit: the saccharine blossoms, the small green fruit, and finally, the brilliant ripeness of temperate winter.
Her writing shimmers, and we are repeatedly caught off guard by the sheer loveliness of this prose as well as Renfro’s poignant reminders and reveries.
A foundational arboreal memory is of her grandfather’s orange groves in Riverside. It was during her own youth that Riverside changed from a land of rows and rows of orange trees to a region lined instead with freeways and strip malls. This altered place comes to represent Renfro’s own loss of innocence. The memory of the pristine orange groves of her childhood and the reality of the razed groves of Riverside now are what prompt her powerful exegeses on nostalgia and meaning making.
These essays mark her family’s loss, and this loss reflects a more general sense of loss that we all experience as we grow up. These are words we can all take something from:
In my child’s mind there are no explanations for these sudden negations, these annihilations; there are no negotiations or land deals, and there is hardly even chronology. Simply one day you ride in a car and look out a window and where the groves used to be is empty land, or, if you look closely, not quite empty: oranges still litter the plowed ground, shaken loose by the violent wrenching of trees, the fruit telling me that very recently something cataclysmic occurred to several thousand trees. . . . The navel landscape is gradually written over, becoming first an empty field, and later a housing development or strip mall. In a year or two, I will not be able to say which groves came out in which order.
For Renfro, trees are as much a part of the natural landscape as they are part of our emotional landscape. She looks to the trees both near her now as well as the ones populating her memories for solace as well as for guidance. She invites us in to her personal musings, allowing us to remember what’s essential to us all.
Maggie Trapp teaches literature and writing online for UC Berkeley Extension. She writes book reviews for various publications, and she is the staff poetry reviewer for Extract(s).
Header photo by Yelizaveta P. Renfro, courtesy North American Review.