Photo credit: Tyler Merkel
The first draft of The Gospel of Trees
was well over a 1,000 pages, three times longer than the book contract had specified. I knew that I had to let it go. My writing studio in the woods looks down on an empty shed with a moss-covered roof, so I climbed up a ladder and set the manuscript next to the licorice ferns. By the next morning, slugs had traced silver patterns across the damp pages. It has been shat on by birds, buried in snow, gouged by rain. Once, a seedling tree even took root in its crumbling pages — a rather splendid symbol — although it didn’t survive the summer.
The writer Elie Wiesel
observed: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred that is a result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there, only you don’t see them.”
When I left the manuscript to decompose in the woods, I had already spent a decade sorting through letters and cassette tapes that my father had unearthed from the barn — mementos from the years we’d spent in Haiti as missionaries. I’d read critiques of colonial exploitation and had grappled with the shame of self-recognition when I realized the parallels between that jagged history and our well-meaning, perhaps, but profoundly oblivious intervention. I’d interviewed doctors and nurse volunteers from the Baptist hospital, flown across the US to track down fellow missionary kids from the compound in Limbé, and visited farmers in the rural villages where my father had focused his reforestation efforts. He had also given me his journals, so I could juxtapose his terse observations about tree germination, politics, and the weather with my own teenage diary entries in pink and teal ink. As I waded back into traumatic moments that I’d done my best to forget, I had been surprised by the moments of beauty that I had buried along with my fears.
It was just as well that I had started the slow work of befriending grief, because life circles around again.
I’d fallen in love with Haiti at six years old, almost as soon as our plane touched down: the brightly painted buses barreling down the national highway with carnival music horns, the sheer glory of lizards puffing their throats against the ceiling, white sand beaches with bathtub-warm water. Nothing, it seemed, could hold a candle to Haiti’s wild joy. I’d also watched a dictator in a white convertible — "Baby Doc" Duvalier — toss coins to a crowd, and heard the wails of mourning from those struck by the passing motorcade. I knew that the world was not just. My sisters and I had more than enough to eat, plus electricity and running water. I felt the shame of privilege. By the time I was a teenager, the Duvalier dictatorship had eroded and one military coup followed another. The frustration was palpable. There were roadblocks and gunshots, burning cars along the highway. My parents were away on the afternoon that we were told to evacuate because the missionary compound was going to be burned to the ground. I pulled photographs off the wall, assuring my little sisters that everything was going to be fine, although I was no longer sure that it would be.
I was 15 when we left the mission field and moved to Oregon. No one in our family, aside from my father, wanted to talk about Haiti. It was a story we didn’t know how to tell. Why had we gone? What had we accomplished? Had we done more good than harm? It took me 10 years to work up the courage to ask my parents about our years as missionaries; it took me another decade to write my way through that sprawling, messy first draft that I left to decompose in the woods.
The hard, slow work of offering empathy to my teenage self took longer than any other revisions. It is, I confess, far easier to ridicule missionaries than to offer empathy. But flattened, two-dimensional characters do not make for good writing. I struggled to evoke my missionary parents on the page until I realized that they were both admirable and culpable, accountable for their actions but also burdened by their own fears and longings. Could I offer myself the same compassion? I had to own up to my regrets, my complicity in the colonial legacy — a history much easier left hidden in boxes in the barn. When I stumbled across the poet Rilke’s advice in The Book of Hours
I recited it under my breath like a prayer:
It was not pleasure you fell into. It was joy.
You were called to be bridegroom,
Though the bride coming toward you is your shame.
It was just as well that I had started the slow work of befriending grief, because life circles around again. Stories repeat. Just before the final draft of the manuscript was due to my editor, the Eagle Creek Fire roared down the Columbia River Gorge. It was 90 degrees at midnight and the ash was falling like snow when I once again found myself peeling photographs and kid artwork off the walls, unsure if our house would still be standing by morning. A herd of elk clustered in the meadow, restless and scared. Horse trailers thundered down usually quiet country roads. My husband and I loaded 15 years worth of source documents for the book into vehicles, along with our two sons, a dog, a sick kitten, and six baby chicks in a giant Tupperware. (We also found room for a basket full of whiskey, lemons, and almond flour for a cake that in my sleepless, adrenaline-charged state, I was sure I was going to bake. I didn’t.) My revisions to the manuscript were due the next morning. I emailed my editor at 4 a.m. to say that we were evacuating; she graciously gave me an extension.
Settled into a friend’s basement in Portland, we knew that we had been among the lucky ones. We had vehicles to escape in, time to pack, and friends to take us in. We were together. We were safe. Days later we watched, heartsick, as a hurricane tore across the Caribbean. Friends in Florida couldn’t escape because gasoline was running out and the roads were a parking lot. Earthquakes shook Mexico. Houston was still underwater. The earth felt fragile with loss.
My sons, ages 9 and 12, were furious that the Eagle Creek Fire had been started by a teenager playing with fireworks, and at first they wanted him to be thrown into jail for life without parole; but then we all thought about things we’d done that we later regretted. Shame is destructive. Regret can be a powerful force for good.
My husband and I put our arms around the boys and talked about how this is the world we now live in: full of sorrow and uncertainty. Climate change is not a myth. Our collective choices have a profound impact. The rain forest where we live is vulnerable to forest fires because of unusually hot summers and dry winds. The Caribbean, because of intensified weather patterns, is vulnerable as never before to hurricanes capable of devastating entire islands. Loss is loss. Sorrow is sorrow. We are all in this together. But it is also, thankfully, a world that in spite of everything is full of kind and courageous ordinary people who speak up for each other and (at their best) take in strangers and make them feel welcome.
Strangers drove up the Columbia Gorge with animal trailers in the middle of the night to evacuate livestock, drove boat trailers toward flooded Houston suburbs, and took in newly homeless neighbors in Puerto Rico and Dominica, just as Haitian families had done after the earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Crises can bring to the surface astonishing levels of generosity. Which is good, because we will need each other if we are going to find a way to protect this beloved earth — and each other.
Our community in the Gorge, thanks to the heroic work of 900 firefighters, was largely spared, though a local firefighter described a sight that he’ll never forget as long as he lives: a single bull elk racing down the middle of the empty freeway, away from a mountain in flames. We moved back home, and collected the singed maple leaves that had floated down from burning trees, but which mercifully had not set anything else alight. Our 12-year-old son celebrated his birthday with an impromptu feast in the meadow, despite the fact that we were still officially in a level two evacuation zone. I sent off my final revisions. When I climbed the ladder to check on the crumbling remains of the manuscript, I found it flecked with ash. It helps, I think, to watch your first book slowly decompose in the woods: a reminder that loss is inevitable, but not necessarily to be feared. We do not know what will germinate from what we leave behind.
÷ ÷ ÷
Apricot Anderson Irving
is currently based in the woods outside Portland, Oregon, but has lived in Haiti, Indonesia, and the UK. Her missionary parents moved to Haiti when she was 6 years old; she left at the age of 15. She returned to Haiti in the spring of 2010 to cover the earthquake for the radio program This American Life
. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship. Her renowned oral history project, BoiseVoices.com, was a collaboration between youth and elders to record the stories of a neighborhood in the midst of gentrification. She loves to garden, and on rare occasions she can be persuaded to belt out Irish folk songs in bars. The Gospel of Trees
is her first book.