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Limber by Angela Pelster

Reviewed by Joseph Holt

Angela Pelster. Limber. Sarabande Books.

Trees are the subject of Angela Pelster’s debut essay collection, Limber. Pine trees and poplar trees, sycamores and saskatoons, fig trees, maple trees, trees outside the essayist’s window and trees as far off, theoretically, as the moon. While the title Limber seems to conflate the words, “lumber” and “timber,” it also alludes to the resilient limber pines in Pelster’s home region of Alberta, Canada. Perhaps even more so, however, “limberdescribes the structural malleability of Pelster’s nonfiction. These are essays that shift and veer, carving instinctual, organic paths and always resisting the easy conclusion. Pelster’s work in Limber calls to mind the origin of the word essay, which in Montaigne’s French literally meant trial, as in an attempt or test of the intellect.

In form these are lyric essays, lithe and meditative, proceeding through associations of thought rather than linear narrative. They change shape and shift form, not only in structure but also in scope and theme. For instance, “Portrait of a Mango” is a modular essay, an appreciation of the fruit and its distinct color consisting of fifteen sections that could essentially be reordered. Then there’s “Inosculation,” a first-person narrative of isolation and invention told from the perspective of tree contortionist Axel Erlandson. (“Nature does not concern itself with beauty,” writes Pelster through the guise of Erlandson. “All things beautiful are a happy accident of practicality.”) And later on there’s “How Trees Came to Be in the World,” an eight-page account of the evolution of life that remains swift and accessible despite addressing such technical subjects as cellular biology, atmospheric chemistry, and carbon ecology.

The accessibility of Pelster’s prose, in fact, is among the great strengths of this collection. In describing scientific processes, Pelster crafts simple, succinct definitions. Here, for example, is a passage from the essay “Temple”:

I saw a lot of wild fig trees the summer I spent in Greece, though it wasn’t the season for fruit. They were strangler figs, which means the seeds germinate when they are dropped into a crevice of a host tree. As the fig grows, it sends down long, vinelike roots that prop up the stem and eventually bind together to form something that looks like a trunk. It grows around the host and sucks out all its nutrients and steals the sun and rain for itself, until the host dies from starvation. Eventually, all that remains is a tree-shaped hollow in the center of the fig’s trunk.

Note the active verbs in that excerpt: sends down, prop up, bind together, grows around, sucks out, and steals. By subtle stylistic choices, Pelster humanizes trees, granting them agency in their own population and stubborn survival. Some trees she profiles have folkloric names, like the Loneliest Tree in the World (a fallen acacia in the Saharan Desert) and the Tree That Owns Itself (a white oak in Athens, Georgia). Others have biographies that rival those of most men, like the redwoods of northern California whose rings identify “the year the Magna Carta was signed [and] the year Columbus set sail,” or the knotty pines in the Crowsnest Pass of Alberta that have witnessed generations of coal-mining tragedies. By affording trees humanity, Pelster implicitly argues for ecological preservation. But as her essays defy traditional form, so does her argument. Limber is anything but a tract or a rallying cry. Rather, it states its ecological case by teaching readers to more fully appreciate the natural world.

The essays in Limber do tend to flirt with inaccuracy, or at least mystery. Yet this concern never damages Pelster’s ethos as a nonfiction writer. It’s clear she’s done her research. Besides, the lyric essay is something different from straight journalism. With its contemplative, associative style, it allows for creative elaboration. Although Pelster never cites sources within the text—a well-informed choice, for doing so would be disruptive and cumbersome—she establishes authority by her keen eye for telling details. (Still, it’s possible Limber might have benefited had Pelster cited her secondary sources on the acknowledgments page.)

One essay in particular, “Moon Trees,” playfully raises the question of what can be verified as fact. In it, Pelster posits that an Old Testament sinner—a man who dared gather sticks on the Sabbath—was stoned so violently by Moses’s assembly that he was lifted from the earth and carried all the way to the moon, where he lives to this day among a forest of katsura. Such a premise is wildly fantastic, of course. Yet it’s easy to imagine as mythologically true, no less plausible than Pelster’s description in the essay “Temple” of Athena striking the ground with her spear to conjure an olive tree. Furthermore, in “Moon Trees” Pelster diligently refers to a Bible verse, an article from the Guardian, and the biography of astronaut Stuart Roosa—all accurate and verifiable sources. The result is a delightful, persuasive essay that achieves its emotional depth by mingling fact with invention.

Limber is a slim volume—seventeen essays in just over 150 pages—but it’s anything but slight. The essays are ordered with great care. The artwork by Kristen Radtke, silhouettes of trees that resemble wood-block impressions, is elegant and expressive. And on occasion Pelster provides generous glimpses into her own life—a first marriage, a father who turned to drugs, a daughter Pelster raised for a time on her own, and eventually a satisfying domestic life. But she always returns, with great compassion and clear focus, to the trees.

And of all the mysterious and imposing trees that appear in Limber, one group especially captured my imagination: those displayed by Axel Erlandson in his Circus of Trees in Scots Valley, California—“diamond-shaped trees, cathedral-shaped trees, a bird cage, a ladder, a zigzag, a telephone booth, a spiral, a heart, a tree with a knot in it.” To create these trees Erlandson would bind them, torture and contort them. The result would be an object of unnatural but unmistakable beauty. Which serves as a fair description of Pelster’s work in Limber.