by Yelizaveta P. Refro

University of New Mexico Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-826-35458-7.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 05/09/2015

Nonfiction: Memoir

Here in the Texas Hill Country, we've been living with a five-year drought that threatens to return our woodland to prairie. On our 31-acre homestead, trees have been dying at an increasingly fast clip. The willows that sprouted exuberantly in the rainy years beside our small lake are gone. We lost the large, shallow-rooted American elm by the rock wall. Even the ubiquitous junipers are dying. It's hard to see them go, especially because I suspect that the drought that is killing them, the worst in recorded history, is influenced by human-caused climate change. I worry that someday these lovely trees will be gone and forgotten.

I imagine that Yelizaveta Renfro would share my worries. Her collection of personal essays, Xylotheque, is all about trees—and about life and death and loss and understanding. The title refers to the eighteenth-century invention of the xylotheque, from the Greek words xylos, "wood," and theque, "depository." A xylotheque was a box-like "book" containing materials relating to a specific tree species, with a cover made out of the actual wood and the spine covered by the bark. Open the "book" and you'll find actual dried leaves, flowers, fruits, seedlings, a piece of the root, cut branches, seeds, as well as a written description of the tree.

Yelizaveta Renfro has brought us a collection of nine lyric essays that, in the spirit of the xylotheque, look deeply into the trees in her life—or, perhaps more largely, into her life among trees. Each essay, written with an extraordinary poetic grace, dances around trees: living trees, dead trees, fossilized trees, trees in the Soviet Union (her mother's homeland), trees in California (her father's home). "The trees could tell us much, in their more subtle tongue, if only we would learn how to listen," she says in her first essay, "Living at Tree Line." She urges us to listen, although "what the trees teach, what they mean, why they are crucial to who you are" will continue to be a mystery.

And Renfro offers us many exercises in listening. In "Soviet Trees" (written in second person and present tense), we hear a quick sketch of a girl's "unlikely story" of a Russian mother and an American father and listen to the Russian girls as they clamor for souvenirs of the girl's America. In "Lithodendron," we listen in the interstices between Renfro's story of a visit to a fossilized forest and the story of her father's mother, and learn that "Home is not the place you stay but the places that stay with you." In "Quercus," we listen in the gaps between the three-paragraph "briefs" Renfro wrote as a crime reporter and the descriptions of oak trees in her life—oaks that endure, persevere, create a living community, while society's crimes drive people apart. In each of her essays, and in many different ways, Renfro invites her readers to do the work of weaving the story together out of the fragments of materials she offers us, the story of the trees, the stories of her life. And we, inveterate seekers of story, of meaning, are glad to do what she asks.

But in the end, we are thwarted, and so is Renfro herself. "What is a tree?" she asks her young daughter. But she knows there is no answer, or rather, that there are too many answers: "A tree was a metaphor for everything in my life. It could mean all things." Perhaps it is a fractal, or a universe, or a record in its rings of its own existence. It is shade and construction material, a place for birds to nest and food for bugs. It is symbol and hope and beauty. Yet a tree is exactly and only what it is: "It stands for itself," Renfro says. "We are the ones who demand so much more of it. And it is both so much less and so much more than we hope and imagine." What the trees teach will be forever mysterious to us, but we will continue trying to learn.

And so with human life and with the deaths that are part of the warp and woof of these interlinking, interlocked essays. A life stands just for itself, in all its own peculiar frailties and imperfectness. "We are not omniscient," Renfro reminds us. We grasp only fragments, we live in intervals, "we see only so much." But what is important, and what is hopeful, is the time we take to look, to watch, to understand, to make meaning, to be meaningful. In Renfro's world, time is embodied in the very heartwood and bark rings of the trees, in the palimpsests of landscapes, in the generations of human families, in a child gazing at a tree.

Reading Renfro's essays is very much like reading lyric poetry, with its many loops and spirals, echoes, reverberations, openings and closings and re-openings, pauses and gaps and fullness and incompleteness. Like a lyric poem, Xylotheque will demand your careful attention. But it will repay your time and energy many-fold. It is a book you won't quickly forget.

Read an excerpt from this book.

About herself, Renfro says: "I was born in the former Soviet Union to a Russian mother and American father during the Cold War. Growing up in Riverside, California, I spent a lot of time in orange groves and reading Russian literature (but, alas, never at the same time). I have since lived in Virginia and Nebraska and currently call Connecticut home. I have a BA in comparative literature from the University of California, Riverside, an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to writing, editing, teaching, and mothering, I spend a lot of time looking at trees." Visit her blog.

Check out our interview with the author of Xylotheque.

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