28 September 2012

Imprint Friday: Lives of the Trees by Diana Wells

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Algonquin Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

If you've been reading Imprint Friday for any length of time, then you have already thanked me for bringing bugs and worms (both by Amy Stewart; Algonquin Books) and weeds (by Richard Mabey; Ecco Books) into your life. I've been wondering about what these books say about my view of the world.

Just so you know, I'm not all about the dark side; unless you mean shade, which I really love. And the best kind of shady place is, of course, under a favorite tree. Now that I've read Diana Wells's Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History, I have a fuller appreciation for the gentle giants that make my summers so pleasant.

Here's the publisher's summary:
Diana Wells . . . turns her attention to . . . our deep-rooted relationship with trees. As she investigates the names and meanings of trees, telling their legends and lore, she reminds us of just how innately bound we are to these protectors of our planet. Since the human race began, we have depended on them for food, shade, shelter and fuel, not to mention furniture, musical instruments, medicine utensils and more.

Wells has a remarkable ability to dig up the curious and the captivating: At one time, a worm found in a hazelnut prognosticated ill fortune. Rowan trees were planted in churchyards to prevent the dead from rising from their graves. Greek arrows were soaked in deadly yew, and Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth used “Gall of goat and slips of Yew” to make their lethal brew. One bristlecone pine, at about 4,700 years old, is thought to be the oldest living plant on earth. All this and more can be found in the beautifully illustrated pages (themselves born of birch bark!). . . .
As Diana Wells says in her introduction, she wrote the Lives of the Trees "not for botanists or dendrologists" or even for landscapers, but for all of us who love trees and want to know more about them.

The book is arranged alphabetically from alder to yew, and each short chapter starts off with a lovely pencil drawing of the leaves of the tree being discussed. Don't pick up Lives of the Trees if you want to know where to plant your ash sapling; you won't find that information here. Instead you'll learn why the ash is sometimes called the widow-maker and the origins of its other names. You'll see what Shakespeare had to say about the tree and discover that some cultures believed ash had magic properties.

From literature to music, religion to politics, trees have played a part in human affairs for millennia. Here are just some of the fascinating tidbits Wells included in the book:
  • Pine: One of the precipitating events of the American Revolution was the British navy's claim to the biggest, straightest northern white pine for masts. One of the first acts of the United States was to ban export of such wood to Britain.
  • Holly: Have you wondered why holly is a common Christmas plant? Its thorns symbolize Christ's crown; its red berries, his blood; and its bitter taste, the Passion.
  • Neem: A native to India, this much-loved tree has so many medicinal uses, it was "sometimes known as the village pharmacy."
  • Quince: The fruit of the quince has been immortalized in poetry, plays, and the Bible. It was also once a common marmalade fruit.
Lives of the Trees is packed with literary references, folklore, and science, and Well's informal writing style makes it a pleasure to read. It's not the kind of book you're likely to read from cover to cover in one sitting; instead you'll probably start off looking up the trees in your yard, and from there dip into the rest of the chapters. The index is nicely organized, so you can easily find all the Shakespeare references or discover which trees were important in Greek mythology.

Diana Wells's Lives of the Trees is a gem of book for the naturalist, historian, and trivia buff in all of us.

Algonquin Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Executive Editor Chuck Adams's introductory letter, posted here on January 7, 2011.

Lives of the Trees at Powell's
Lives of the Trees at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Workman / Algonquin Books, 2010
ISBN-13: 9781565124912


Tea 9/28/12, 7:40 AM  

Never heard of a Neem. Interesting.

bermudaonion 9/28/12, 9:03 AM  

This sounds like a wonderful book. My parents were always passionate about trees. I bet my mom would love this book.

Daryl 9/28/12, 9:49 AM  

you had me at 'deeply rooted'

Barbara 9/28/12, 9:57 AM  

I love books like this and I love trees - a match made in heaven.

Julie P. 9/28/12, 3:49 PM  

This one probably has some interesting facts, but I doubt I could read an entire book about trees!

Beth Hoffman 9/29/12, 11:14 AM  

You know how much I love trees! No doubt I will devour this book. It's going on my "to buy" list immediately.

chrisa511 9/29/12, 9:53 PM  

I think I need this book right now.....

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) 10/2/12, 9:14 AM  

This sounds like a book I would love. Thanks for spotlighting it, somehow I hadn't heard of this one.

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