On mushrooms, trees, and life

So I have a bit of a lit-crush on Bill Valgardson, also known as W.D. Valgardson when he’s publishing books.

I took one of my first creative writing courses from Valgardson when I was at the University of Winnipeg. He’d just published The Girl with the Botticelli Face, a book about divorce and grieving and somehow getting through adult life, so it was in/around 1993. My parents had just separated, so my home life was weird, all of us grieving the changes to our life and, also, relieved that it had finally happened.

I don’t remember the content of the workshop but I remember being invited to the lunch they had for him afterwards at the UWinnipeg Faculty Club, which made me feel like a writer.

And though I had very little money, being a student, I bought a copy of Girl in hardcover, because I imagined that my mother would identify with it. Bill signed it to my mum and when I presented it to her, she cried. I cried.

More recently, I had the chance to interview Bill for the Winnipeg Free Press about his latest book In Valhalla’s Shadows, a literary mystery and . Bill is in his 80s now, but In Valhalla’s Shadows is one of the most thoughtful and beautifully books I’ve read in years. His launch in Winnipeg was amazing, leaving me feeling full of what’s possible in life and in art. Afterwards, we became Facebook friends, which, again, made me feel like a writer.

Bill doesn’t have a blog but he often posts long meditations about history, society, and culture on Facebook, including reviews of books he’s reading. So I was eager to get him a copy of Treed but didn’t have a chance to get out to Gimli where he summers until I was volunteering on a bio-inventory on a new NCC parcel of land in Husavik.

Here’s what Bill posted a few days later:

“It looked like a drug deal. I sat pensively on the blue bench outside Flatlands coffee shop, watching each car that pulled up to the stop sign in front of me. I didn’t know what kind of car Ariel drives. Many cars pulled up drove away. Finally, one stopped at the curb, Ariel jumped out, opened the back of the car, took out a small package and handed it to me, then quickly raced away. She’d just dropped a group of volunteers off at Husavik and needed to return. I was tempted to hold up Ariel’s new collection of essays, Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests and say to the coffee drinkers on the patio, “It’s a book.”

And what a book it is. Perhaps my pleasure as I read was because I grew up with forests (my father was a commercial fisherman and his fishing camps were in wilderness, sometimes on islands) and I could hunt rabbits and prairie chickens just on the town’s edges. I was used to foraging for high bush cranberries, raspberries, saskatoons, choke cherries and meadow mushrooms and morels.

However, Ariel’s love of trees and mushrooms, of forests, even when they are urban forests, drives each of her tales. Her knowledge of local history helps ground the essays, gave parts of Winnipeg depth, made the stories more substantial. In “Boulevarding” she says : “I’ve never lived more than a mile from the banks of either the Red or Assiniboine Rivers and the river-bottom forests planted there”, That identification, that love of her Winnipeg shines through every essay but it does not limit the book to being a Winnipeg book. As I read, I frequently stopped to sit back and remember the trees of the places I have lived. The white birch and rowan bush in our Gimli yard, the pecan trees of Missouri, the unbelievableness of Monkey Puzzle trees of Victoria and the majestic Douglas Firs of Salt Spring Island. A good book does that. That is why it takes some time to read. It’s not the reading but the moments of thought brought on by what is being read.

In “Central Parking” she says “It’s the middle of a steamy heat wave and I’m spending the afternoon sitting in the sun in Winnipeg’s Central Park…The ice cream man, too hot to pedal his wheeled car around, sprawls in a patch of shade”. What Winnipeger, even a peripheral one like me who spent his summers with his grandparents on Walker, Stafford and Fleet, whose grandmother took him on long bus rides to Central Park, cannot luxuriate in the information and visual images of Central Park? I, too, have seen the ice cream man sprawling, I was part of that crowd that made Central Park so popular that it was wearing out. “Citizens flocked there for band concerts, community singing, tennis or just a stroll around viewing the greenery and flowers.” Seventy years later, at least once a summer, I still go to Central Park. Reading Ariel’s essay is like visiting an old friend.

This is a book about trees, mushrooms, neighbourhoods, history, heritage and women. In the first essay, “Brush Fire” Ariel says, “I want to go walking in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Forest./I want to go walking in the forest whenever and however I can.”

Men are peripheral to these stories. There’s Mike, Ariel’s husband, and in one essay she’s worried about him because he is away fighting a forest fire. He does keep appearing, here and there. He shares taking care of their daughter. He goes with Ariel on forest walks. There are the men she consults about the forest. But this is a woman’s book. It is women that she takes on forest walks. It is about her having unexpected problems with perimenopause. “I never know what to expect, so I always have pads with me, but I’ve stained the couch, my office chair and several pairs of pants already. It’s strange to not trust my familiar body.”

This makes me think of Sharon Butala’s new collection of short stories, Season of Fury and Wonder (Coteau Books). I met Sharon, after not having seen her in a couple of decades, in Yellowknife at the Northwords Festival. I’d already reviewed her book. It is a collection of fictional stories about aging, older women. I enjoyed it because it made me think of my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, women who were central to my life. It was a book about women for women, I would say. Nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, in terms of interest and sales, there are a lot more aging women than men.

Ariel and the women she writes about in Treed aren’t elderly, the stories are not about the trials and tribulations of being a widow, of being alone, of frail health. Her essays, though, as much as they are about trees, are about being a woman and her relationship to other women.

There is, of course, her writing itself, the carefully chosen words, the images that bring scenes to life. In “Black Bat Night” she begins a paragraph “Still no rain, though the trembling aspens out in the yard are rattling, mimicking a soft rainfall.” “In my forty-five years, I’ve planted myself like a caragana hedge, like a windbreak, in six Winnipeg neighbourhoods”. I wish I’d thought of that image.

Buy Treed. Read it. Give yourself time with it. Don’t rush. One essay at a time. Even part of an essay at a time. Give yourself time to ponder about mushrooms, and trees, and life.”