Angela Pelster was a finalist for the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for Limber, a collection of essays which chart the world’s history through its trees: through roots in the ground, rings across wood, and inevitable decay. The following are three essays from the book. 

Les Oiseaux

It is still winter.

The cedar waxwings swarmed the backyard this afternoon—at least a thousand of them—and the radio I had been listening to went static with their coming and then switched to a French station that I could not understand. I moved from my table to the window to watch the birds feed on the red mountain ash berries. Poor trees. They looked so patient in the snow, so resigned to being stripped of their color for the sake of the birds.

When the waxwings were done, they lifted from the branches as one enormous body and the frequency of my radio pulled out with them and rode on the backs of their wings until the station went static and changed to English again. It all happened smoothly and without fanfare, as if waxwings had always controlled such things in the universe.

I ran to another window to follow them for as long as I could while the announcer rolled through the top of the hourly news: The mutilated remains of a ten-year-old girl have been found in a park today.

It has been discovered that trees communicate with one another below ground through root systems and fungi. I do not know if they communicate with birds, but it seems possible in a world where all manner of unimaginable things happen in places seen and unseen, in forests and gardens and parks.

The trees in the backyard were stoic in the aftermath of the birds, with scraps of red scattered on the snow below them, and the radio droned on. I stood at the window and sent out signals from the top of my head for the birds to return. I tapped the tips of my fingers with my thumbs; we waited.


By Way of Beginning

This is not a memoir, but the summer I was nine my parents borrowed a grass-green camper van and loaded up the four of us kids to drive to Disneyland from our home in Alberta. The camper was only meant to accommodate four, so my youngest sister slept in the large cupboard over the driver’s cab, peeking out like a cuckoo bird above us in the morning, and my little, skinny-chested brother slept on the floor in the space between the table and the seats in front of it. I shared a bed with my oldest sister. We didn’t mind being cramped. We were used to the six of us driving together in my dad’s pickup truck, three on the seat and another three piled on top of those. The youngest always on my dad’s lap because she was small and didn’t get in the way of the steering wheel so much.

The Trees of Mystery is one of those roadside attractions that pull travel-tired families in from the highway and toss them into strange, dreamlike worlds while they stretch their legs and turn cheap souvenirs over in their hands. It is an almost mile-long trail through a section of redwoods in California, close to the southern border of Oregon and the only stop I remember making with my family on our thirty-hour drive. It was the kind of place with redwoods large enough to drive a van through, and where families of six would try to hold hands around a trunk but couldn’t. Everything smelled of rotting plants, of bursting spores and red dirt and moss. Mushrooms, big enough to sit on, bloomed from the sides of trees and the air was so wet you could suck the rain from it with your lips.

We were from the prairies. We were used to wheat and barley rolling for miles under the blue with clumps of poplar trees edging the fields to stop the wind. Poplars are small narrow trees with leaves that clack in the slightest breeze, and I spent my summers building tree forts in them with my cousin who lived down the road. We dragged old bits of lumber and a rusty bucket of nails that my dad had given us into the forest and hammered the first board in as high as we could reach on tiptoe. When we had the rickety floor laid, we climbed up onto it and swayed with the wind, imagining what we would build when we were old enough to use power tools.

The poplars fed the tent caterpillars that infested our land year after year, and I came to think of summer as the season of the caterpillar and the poplar tree as a nest for their spontaneous reproduction. Every summer, until the county started to spray the forests with pesticides from planes, the pale bark of our trees squirmed with black mounds a foot long and two inches deep of tent caterpillars. They dropped from the branches and landed in our hair, on the backs of our necks, in our collars. My older sister squished them with her bike on the concrete and recorded the color of their guts in a coiled book; my brother froze them under a spurting propane tank and snapped them in half; my little sister put one on her tongue to feel the furriness of it tickle before she swallowed it down. I remember looking out the bedroom window one morning and seeing that our bright green summer had been eaten into an early winter. It was such a mean-hearted thing to do to a place on the constant edge of freezing. When I saw the redwoods at the Trees of Mystery, I never wanted to see a poplar again.

There was a forty-nine-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan at the gates, along with his thirty-five-foot-tall Babe the Blue Ox. The signs scattered around the grounds said that Paul could bring down twenty-five million feet of wood a day. When he was born, it took five storks to carry him. He ate fifty eggs at breakfast and ten sacks of potatoes; his parents kept ten cows to supply him with milk for the day. The signs also said that the tallest tree in the world is a redwood in California. It was the land of giants, I thought, and difficult to know where the myth began and the truth ended. Ask a poplar if it believes in redwoods and it might start talking about faith.

At the head of the trail was a slice of smoothed and varnished tree that hung like a target with arrows pointing to rings of important dates. I touched my finger to the year the Magna Carta was signed, the year Columbus set sail, the year Canada became a country, the year Paul Bunyan was born. Tree, tree, tree; there was always tree.

A tree ring marks a year of growth, but it isn’t marking it for humans. The rings are a memory of what the seasons brought and what the tree made of it. The widest rings are the good years, recorded in thick dark circles of brown, and the hungry years are narrow and pale and hard to read.

A German artist named Bartholomäus Traubeck sliced a slab of tree as thin and round as a record and placed it on a turntable. The rings were read as data that told the years of strength and growth rate and climate and rainfall. They were mapped to scale and translated by a program that reads the information and outputs it as piano music. So the turntable turns with a record of wood, and its years are given a voice that sounds like my cloudy-eyed grandmother at her upright, stumbling, trying to remember the sad songs she liked to play when she was young. It is full of longing. I am not surprised. The wood that is being played is dead. It is a map of the memory of a year following a year following a year, a selective story of what happened and sometimes of what it meant.

Once, there was a year without summer, and it was so cold that it snowed in June and nothing bloomed and no fruit grew, and the trees didn’t record that year in their rings; there is a missing line. But when the tree’s life is placed on the record player there is no pause to mark this, just a skipping on to the next year, which is to say that even a tree will only tell the story it wants to tell.


The Boys of Lake Karachay

When the fish in Lake Karachay, south of the Ural Mountains in Russia, went blind, not everyone stopped eating them. It was only a game. The boys, bored on a hot summer day, would wander down to the lake through the forest and pull off shirts and pants and splash into the murkiness, jump on one other’s backs and spit lake water into the air from their sunburnt lips. It was always warmer in Karachay than any other lake. When they had cooled off, they stood with their toes shoved into the silty bottom, knees bent, eyes flicking over the surface, hands hovering. The fish came to nibble at their calves and ankles, and even blind they could turn and flick away from the boys’ diving hands as fast as light winking off glass, as if turned by some secret code.

The fish had milky-blue eyes that bulged and reminded the boys of the old Red Army soldiers that sometimes wandered into the village and sat with tin cups and crusts of salt dried around their lids and lashes, stunned and hungry. The fishes’ gills opened and closed in panicky gasps and seized in the boys’ hands until the boys knocked them on the head. They filleted them and roasted them over a small fire, plucking the hot white meat from the sticks

Once, one of the boys caught a fish and yelled at the others to come see. They splashed toward him where he stood with his catch held far from his skinny white chest. It was a small carp, slick and silver-brown with fat gray lips and both of its eyes on one side of its head. The boys laughed and poked at it, brought it back to the shore and sliced it open on a hot rock in the sun. They dug around in its guts looking for other oddities, and then dared each other to eat chunks of it raw. One boy picked up the head and flung it at the back of another with a bloody thunk.

Sometimes after they had eaten, the boys climbed the limbs of the old fir trees. At first, they called out to one other, threw twigs and cones and laughed as they rocked, hands sticky with sap, but as the sun dropped their voices did too, and they went silent as the last birds called from their nests, a forest of boys swaying in the twilight. Their fathers had done this before them. And their fathers, too. Later, they dropped to the ground and went home stinking of fish and lake grass, to mothers who scolded them and scrubbed their backs and arms and faces in water so hot it turned their soft skin pink.

When the restriction notices went up in town about drinking water from the Techa River or eating the fish in it or in the lakes nearby, everyone obeyed at first. Forty miles of dark foam floated on the surface like a frothy plague of water turned to blood. Trucks left the nearby Mayak chemical plant and traveled the road like a conveyor belt to the shores of the river. They dumped load after load into it and then even more into Lake Karachay. There were rumors of a poison reaching the Atlantic.

One day, men came and dammed the Techa River, and then, after years of thin living and war and empty chairs like gravestones at the dinner table, there was a rich riverbed that had once been under water. Everyone who could grabbed a piece and planted it. People started drinking the water again, and there was a feast of fish though the fish were blind.

Gardens were sown and harvested and sown and harvested, and the boys, nearly men, saw Rusalka in their dreams. She swam through the waters of Lake Karachay, her tail silver-green as she rode the small waves like sea foam, and was carried to the shore where the boys watched, tied in silence. When her tail touched sand, it split, formed feet and legs and she walked from the water toward them, smooth and naked as a pearl. The boys followed her to the edge of the beach where the fir trees met the shore. She climbed and perched in the arms of the branches, singing songs that made their breathing turn to clacking as they climbed the tree after her, and their mothers in the shape of flopping fish on the rocks called out to go no nearer. And then at once they were in the water drowning, Rusalka’s silver hair in their mouths, her tail around their legs, pulling them deeper.

The boys woke drenched and panting, gums swollen, blood smeared over their white teeth the night of the explosion. The Mayak plant was burning. A two-and-a-half-meter-thick concrete lid shot into the air and landed thirty meters away. Dissolved nuclear waste rose in smoke, collected like a cloud, and shadowed the land five miles wide as it rained over the province of Chelyabinsk. It rained on the houses, the thatched roofs, the gardens of carrots and potatoes and leeks; it rained on the cattle, the sheep, the pigs lolling in the cool mud; it rained on the forest of fir and pine along the rivers, on the meadow grasses of the steppes, the clover and the caragana shrubs, on the badgers and the polecats and the bears digging for bugs in the damp under rocks. And it blew in the open windows, settled on the baked bread, on the jugs of milk, and on the boys eating at the table, drinking from tin cups.

Then the fish weren’t blind, they were dead. And the boys weren’t boys anymore, they looked like old men, aching and brittle, faces red and splotchy, vomiting and weak. Skin sloughed off their cheeks and foreheads and hands in large sheets, while their mothers eyed them at dinner with growing terror and the food that none of them could now eat.

The towns along the Techa River were gathered up like fruit, first one, and then months later another, and then another. The army came and notices were posted again, and the people were collected and carried away from their homes. Their houses were burned and the top layer of their land scraped from the earth, gray scabs of rock where nothing grew again, the wild animals as homeless as the people, the trees and flowers and grasses, homeless. Dead fir trees in the dead ground. And none of the villagers were told why.

They went to the hospitals—the boys and mothers and sisters and fathers all nauseated and weak and sweating in the night. Rusalka called to them all from Karachay. There was a bead of sweat on the doctor’s upper lip when he called it blood disease and vegetative syndrome, but no one knew what vegetative syndrome was, so the people called it river sickness. The doctor could do little to help, so the people went home again. The mothers boiled broth and said prayers in the four corners of each room, the fathers flipped through old seed catalogs, and the sisters chose names for babies that would never be born.

The boys died panicked and confused in homes not their own, tugging at the blankets knit by their mothers. Lake Karachay continued to shrink while trucks from the Mayak plant, patched and producing again, slipped their loads into the dark water. The dusty banks of the old lake absorbed the secrets they planted in it, and it contracted deeper and deeper into itself, until it was a wet shadow on the dry land.

One night, maybe the townsfolk say, the ghosts of the boys climbed the dead fir trees along the shore and called to Rusalka until she came up from the lake, wailing, in coarse black hair, eyes growing on her hands and neck, her feet webbed and her breasts gaping wounds. As she rose, her wailing grew louder and the dead boys moaned with her, cracking the dome of imposed silence that sealed Chelyabinsk. She started to spin, slowly at first and then gathering speed, flying like a cyclone over the dried lakebed, gathering up the poisoned dust like a spinning spool with thread, she moved to the center of Karachay, rose high above the trees, a screeching storm, until she finally burst, and all the throbbing dust released into the winds that carried it out to the villages for miles around. The fir trees shook in its wake, leaves and needles and seeds sucked into the rush, and the ghost boys felt their ghostly skin prick at the evil passing of it.

The Karachay dust blew its way over four hundred thousand people, while men in white coveralls came to the lake and filled the bed with concrete blocks to pin the poison down. But the land had already revolted and would not be contained. A lake turned weapon—the concentrations so lethal that a single hour standing on its shores changed any living thing into a ghost. And people turned afraid, as the land turned against them.


In 2009, Artyom Sidorkin had trouble breathing. He was a boy-faced man with red hair and a soft voice—when he spoke, he lowered his eyes. He lived in the Ural Mountains, four hundred kilometers away from the Mayak chemical plant, and he did not want to go down to the city of Izhevsk and the hospital there. He hated the city, but he was coughing up blood. It was like needles in his chest when he inhaled, and no one wondered what this meant.

In the Udmurtian Cancer Center, Dr. Kamashev showed Artyom the scan of his lungs. The doctor traced the outline of the tumor with the tip of his ballpoint pen. It was so large that even he, this man from the mountains, could tell where it was. “I’ve seen hundreds of these before,” Kamashev said, “and it must be removed at once.” Artyom nodded; he was twenty-eight years old, and he was going to die.

Even cancer cells only want to live; life will take hold of life wherever it can. What the surgeon would say later is that when he made the incision and prepared to remove the tumor, he stopped and blinked three times before calling someone else to come see. What Artyom Sidorkin would say is that nobody knows anything; no one understands how this could have happened. When the surgeon opened Artyom’s ribs and cut into his lungs, he found nestled in the red folds and poking into the capillaries a small, green fir tree.

Read more from the finalists of the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay

•  “The Twisted Art of Documentary” by Ian Buruma (Winner)
•  “By Way of a Preface” by Charles D’Ambrosio
•  “The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison
•  “The Self-Deceptions of Empire” by David Bromwich