Liner notes for "Speculations: Trees"

The next issue of Irreantum will feature “Speculations: Trees” my first creative work to be published in print. Many thanks to the editors for a) considering publishing an honorable mention and b) working with me to edit it for publication. It’s a double issue so it costs $10 and can be (you can also view the table of contents there). Or you can subscribe to a full year of Irreantum for $16. Or join the AML for $25.

But if you want to read it, you’ll have to track down a copy of the issue because out of respect for the AML, I will not be providing it for free anytime soon.

If you will be receiving this issue of Irreantum or are motivated to purchase it, you might want to wait and read the liner notes until after you have read it. Spoilers abound and a lot of the below won’t make sense without a knowledge of the work. Sorry.

I’m not sure how to describe “Speculations: Trees” — and have tried out several different options none of which seem to really work for people — but what I would currently call it is a series of five short pieces that are sort of a combination of creative exegesis, prose poem and parable. Or something like that. I’m open for suggestions. Anyway, here are my completely self-indulgent, but hopefully not entirely dull liner notes:

I.

This is one of the first pieces in the Speculations series that I wrote and the first in the Trees series. In fact, it may have been the initial line of thinking that started the entire project. As I recall, one day I was walking to the casual carpool location in Oakland and thinking about the nature of knowledge (of good and evil) and the events in the Garden of Eden, and it occurred to me that knowledge isn’t actually sweet and juicy. Well, not to be explicit, but if you reduce the events to sexuality (which some of have done), then I suppose using an orange, apple or pomegranate works. But I reject that interpretation. So that led me down a different trail, and I thought: what if it was a quince?

I don’t know if any of you have eaten raw quince. I have. It’s crisp and astringent and cottony, and totally sucks the moisture out of your mouth. To my mind, as a physical experience it better approximates the effects of knowledge than any other fruit (I could be wrong, of course, since fruit is one of the only areas where my ravenous omnivore-ism fails). So when I got into the car at the carpool, I pulled out a piece of paper and started jotting down notes.

The tricky thing with this piece, as with any joke, was getting the syntax right so the punchline is well set up. You want to build up the details and the situation without going on too long, but also with enough delay that there is some tension to release. Hopefully it works for some of you.

Like IV., this one wouldn’t exist without my LDS mission to Romania for it was there I tried quince. It always came in the form of preserves (often served on a little crystal plate with a tiny spoon, and most often by an old lady who would say “would you boys like some dulceatsa (sweets)? Have some dulceatsa.” And then we would be forced to eat a plate of jam or jelly or marmelade or — in one incredibly unpleasant experience — honey. I love honey, but not several tablespoons of it by itself on a plate without anything to drink. The best dulceatsa were these sour cherry preserves where the cherry developed this slightly chewy texture almost like dates where the skin is flaky and the meat has a nice firmness to it — the sour balanced out the sweet, the texture worked well with the syrup. The next best, though was quince jam. And one day we were visiting a member who was making quince jam and she let us try the fruit raw.

Update since checking out Wikipedia: Wow. It turns out that I wasn’t bucking tradition after all. So much for the punchline. If you visit the cultural associations section of the Wikipedia page, it says: “In the movie White Men Can’t Jump, Rosie Perez’s character Gloria Clemente was on Jeopardy!, and ‘quince’ was the response to ‘Adam and Eve dined on this forbidden fruit.'” For the record, I have never seen the film.

II.

This was the most difficult one to write: the one I spent the most time fiddling with before submitting it, and the one we worked the most on during the editing process. Part of that is because it’s the one that is most a story. And I’m not so good at story. But the other part is that it’s supposed to be humorous. I don’t know if it is for other readers. The ending is supposed to collapse in on itself. Be so ironic and maudlin that it is funny, and yet at the same time be a little horrific.

I really like it. I like the idea of asserting the historicity of Christ — the tree, of course, is the fig tree he curses in Matthew 21 — but doing so in a form that is almost parabolic and sort-of fairy-tale-ish.  Let’s assume, as most LDS including myself do, that Christ’s miracles are basically higher-order phsyics. What would that withering to the composition of the tree? How would its bark and wood be different from such a cellular level shock? And then let’s say that the tree is cursed on some metaphysical level as well, what would happen if somebody chopped it down and made something from it?

So as utterly arrogant as it sounds, I’m trying to pack questions of historicity, theological speculation, parabolic form, irony, the LDS penchant for happy endings, Biblical narratives about women who miraculously become pregnant and birth children later in life, ideas about relics and heresy all in to a few paragraphs. Hopefully it works for some of you. It vies with V. as my favorite in the Trees series.

III.

This piece is the one that I’m most afraid people will misunderstand or not so much misunderstand as project their reaction to it on to me as a person. I’m afraid that active, believing LDS may think that I’m sympathetic towards the speaker. I’m afraid that ex-Mormons will think I’m trying to insult them by putting words in their mouths. I wrote it because I’m fascinated with the variation of reactions in Lehi’s dream to the path, the iron rod and the tree, and I’m especially intrigued, or puzzled, or literary-interested in those who tried the fruit of the tree, but then were ashamed.

In fact, I intentionally weakened some of the rhetorical power of the piece by exaggerating the linguistic hedging. That may make it weaker — an instance of placing ideology over literariness. But it was a conscious choice on my part. We’ll call it my little rebellion against the insistence on polish and ambiguity of modern literary discourse. But even with the weakening, I think it raises a good question: how do you answer those who have experienced LDS life, but then reject it? I don’t really want to hash that all out here, and I do think that there are some good responses/arguments on both sides, but the point here is to strip away much of the discourse and locate the phenomenon in the extended allegory of Lehi’s dream.

And even now, it’s still tempting to argue with the speaker about the nature of the fruit — but I will resist.

IV.

I think this the weakest one. And that leads me to suspect that everyone who has read it probably thinks the same thing. It is indeed semi-autobiographical — based on an old man I met on my LDS mission to Romania — but exaggerated in the telling, of course. This old guy started coming to our weekly church services because his adult daughter was investigating. He had no interest in being baptized. But he liked the lay ministry (he was big fan of Elder’s Quorum meetings and was not fond of Romanian Orthodox priests) and also that Mormons don’t cross themselves (and yes, he would repeatedly go through this routine of why that was an important thing, which would include the line “man is the cross”) so he kept attending even though his daughter was having a fairly rocky, lengthy road to the waters of baptism. The sisters foisted him on us (he lived alone), so we would visit him from time to time. Our visits were always pleasant although he genially resisted any formal presentation of the discussions as well as anything that smacked of commitment. The other details in the story are based on what he told of his life, but again, exaggerated a bit.

To be honest, I’m not sure I get the story. Why does it end the way it does? What’s with the whole the tree is the cross is the man thing?  Why reassert the tree angle? I’m afraid that I don’t have an answer. Irritatingly, it just felt necessary. I don’t like the mystification of the writing process, and I think that authors should be able to (although not required to) explain the choices they make. This is a case where the choice has been fuzzy from the beginning. When it came to do the final line up for “Speculations: Trees,” I just couldn’t leave it out*.

V.

This is the other early one in the group. It’s a reference to Jacob 5, of course. We LDS tend to ignore a lot of the divine retribution rhetoric nowadays, even though it’s a strong part of our history (and one that still crops up in some of our cultural practices — have any of you read the lyrics to “Praise to the Man” lately?). We also tend to glaze over when we read the extended allegory found in Jacob 5. Well, I was reading it and was struck by all the branches that get cast in to the fire, and was then thinking about those of us (and sometimes that includes myself) who have a fascination with apocalyptic rhetoric and end of times stuff which then led to me to wonder if all the servants in the vineyard would react the same so I decided to pry open the allegory and insert a servant who lingers to watch the destruction. And being that I am a former Boy Scout and thus a former pyromaniac (but a responsible one — c.f. Boy Scout), I understand the hypnotic allure of watching the beautiful yet destructive power of fire.

One of the editorial suggestions was to change “He throws the last armload on, and it ignites” to “He throws the last armload on, and ignites it.”  That makes more sense from a typical standpoint — someone has to ignite it, after all. But in Jacob 5, the Lord of the vineyard says “And then cometh the season and the end; and my vineyard will I cause to be burned with fire.” The image that came to my mind was Elijah and the  priests of Baal.

In the first draft, I added a few sentences that didn’t quite work: “He has seen holy fire before. The tongues that burned above the disciple’s heads at the Pentecost. The white hot fire that shielded Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the furnace’s flames. The angelic glow that encircled the children gathered at the temple in the land of Bountiful. [burning bush? Pillar of fire] But he has never seen flames like these.”

It diverted too much focus away from the moment so I took it out. But I do think that this whole idea of fire that protects or purifies rather than destroys is interesting.

I also want to point out that this is a mournful piece. Those branches are, in the standard interpretation of the allegory, peoples/societies that have become corrupt. Their destruction is not something to rejoice, even though it may hold a morbid fascination for some of us.

* Incidentally there was one that didn’t make the cut. I never actually got very far with it — it was terrible. I tried to do a Midrash on the Tree of Life that was supposed to argue that it was watered by the tears of God the father. Trust me: it didn’t work at all.

3 thoughts on “Liner notes for "Speculations: Trees"”

  1. I’ve been looking forward to this! My Irreantum hasn’t arrived yet so I’ll have to come back when it does. But these liner notes make an interesting piece in their own right, partly because I know some of the backstory, so I’d like to comment on them now.

    Your choice of the quince for the forbidden fruit resulted in a funny association for me because I grew up in the south (okay, the northern end of the south) where japonica, or Japanese quince, was a common ornamental. It produces an incredibly acidic fruit, a small, hard, green, apple-like thing. So when I hit that line the word “quince” came as a total citric surprise.

    But even funnier for me is your revisiting Wikipedia and seeing the cultural associations list and finding, much to your surprise, that in your imaginings about the quince you had pretty much nailed it. Not to sound like a know it all (I’m more of a know-next-to-nothing-at-all), but experience suggests strongly to me that when you start playing in the upper realms of language, this sort of thing happens with unnerving frequency. I think that among other things it has something to do with tapping into archetype, the “old stories” that lie at the roots of our lives.

    Re: III, This piece is the one that I’m most afraid people will misunderstand or not so much misunderstand as project their reaction to it on to me as a person. I’m afraid that active, believing LDS may think that I’m sympathetic towards the speaker.

    News flash: Readers are going to project all kinds of things on to you as a person. That’s how it is when you send your language out there. It’s part of writing.

    One of the most chilling things that has ever happened to me: A man who I later realized had terrible intentions upon my soul read one of my poems, then said, “You have revealed yourself to me, my dear! Yes, you’ve revealed yourself.”

    IV: To be honest, I’m not sure I get the story. Why does it end the way it does? What’s with the whole the tree is the cross is the man thing? Why reassert the tree angle?

    Again, from my childhood in the south. The dogwood tree is a crooked tree that erupts in cross-shaped white flowers in the spring, each petal bearing a mark at its tip that looks like stigma, a scar left from tearing away from a nail. The dogwood tree, as the story goes, was once a tall, straight tree, but one was cut down and used in the wood for the cross upon which Christ was crucified. For their participation in the killing of Jesus, dogwood trees were cursed. Never again would they grow straight and proud, but only gnarled and dwarfed in comparison to what they once were. Furthermore, their flowers, which really are rather beautiful, would forever bear stigmata as a reminder of the tree’s shame for its role in the crucifixion.

    Talk about projection! But it’s because of this story from my childhood that the tree/cross/man transfiguration wasn’t a stretch for me.

    Enough for now. I’ll await the arrival of my Irreantum so I can play this game with all the appropriate pieces.

  2. “but experience suggests strongly to me that when you start playing in the upper realms of language, this sort of thing happens with unnerving frequency.”

    I’m beginning to see that. It’s kind of uncanny, but then again, it totally hits at the mix of ancient and modern, demotic and elitist, frivolous and philosophical that I love so the fact that it wasn’t just a Jeopardy question, but rather a Jeopardy question in a movie about basketball hustlers who play with notions of race and ability in order to win bets, is all rather odd and delicious.

  3. William, since I’m a proofreader for Irreantum I already read your story and liked it. The quince thoroughly surprised me. I reread that part multiple times just because it surprised me. The rest of it doesn’t stick with me as well . . .but I do remember the story about the old Romanian investigator and liking it.

    One of the things I appreciated about your piece was that it was more of a prose poem than an outright, normal fiction piece. I think a lot of LDS writing is strongest when it is posing questions and probing the stories we tell ourselves instead of trying to answer everything. I wonder if regular fiction imposes more of a need to tie things up–which is where so many stories run into trouble!

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