Reviewed by Melinda Backer | November 2, 2021
Change the World Books, April 2017
Paperback, 246 pages, $18.00
Tree, a novel written by Melina Sempill Watts, takes on the challenge of showcasing the world through the eyes of a California live oak in Topanga, California. The most challenging part of the text is also the most rewarding: in order to buy into the conceit of the novel, the reader must accept that the character of Tree is central to everything, and this is reflected in both the author’s language (Tree refers to itself with the pronoun “e”, as do other plants that do not have genders) and in the lives of all of the beings that interact with and befriend Tree over the course of the novel. Conflict flits through the novel mostly in dialogue as we see through the eyes of Tree navigating friendships first with grasses, then later with humans as Tree struggles to understand the actions of humans towards the plant life all around them. Tree thinks with a sense of humor. When seeing a human dressed in leather and gloves, it wonders “why any animal would add extra bark on such a hot day as this” (111). And Tree’s perspective and thoughts parallel those of young humans in earlier segments. The reader follows along as Tree sleeps, wakes, learns to communicate, and comes to understand loss, death, and rebirth.
The novel is structured in segments (“Topanga,” “Wet,” “Univeria Grows,” “Blesse,” “Desolation”), which embody the way Tree experiences time. Each of these chapters isolate an experience that Tree has with its community. Through these sections we see how quickly some lives pass alongside Tree, and how those lives impact the rest of the novel even as Tree endures their passing. One of the more enduring characters in the novel is Rock, whose advice to Tree is, “Love what you have while you have it.” These words define and shape the rest of the novel as Tree grows and the world changes around it.
While humans are a part of this novel and typically act as agents of change, they do not crowd out the other companions that structure Tree’s narrative. Humans enter and exit Tree’s life in the same way other characters do, with segments dedicated to them briefly, and then the narrative returns to Tree, either through a shift in perspective or through an action that brings the characters in contact with each other. Maria Marta’s relationship with Tree demonstrates a strong reciprocal relationship between humans and nonhumans, one that offers safety and respect to both parties. It is through Maria Marta that Tree is understood by other humans. When Maria Marta brings a man to meet Tree, she asks him, “Do you feel it—Do you hear it?…The tree, the tree is happy” (164). Their friendship transcends Maria’s life as she lives on through Tree’s memory. And as other companions live and die, Tree becomes a patron of the forest, giving all beings it encounters love and compassion even as new plants and human development crowd out those it remembers.
One of the most skillful aspects of this novel is how Watts narrates the thought process of Tree through the sensations that it experiences. In “Up,” Tree encounters a rainstorm from the perspective of young adolescence: “With five main branches splitting off from e’s trunk and several dozen secondary branches, all well-leafed, the rain impacted Tree in so many places that e could not easily differentiate an individual drop as e had when e was very young” (59). These close descriptions fill the pages of Tree’s life and lead it to wonder, philosophically, if water is a single organism and
Ultimately, Tree offers a unique perspective on interspecies relationships, tackling the perspective of a tree through descriptive language and pacing that allows the readers to experience Tree’s life through the moments that most powerfully impact it. These moments range from the birth of new grasses
, to the death and rebirth of new forms of beings like asphalt with the memory of rock, and plywood with the memory of tree.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melina Sempill Watts‘ writing has appeared in several publications including: Sierra Magazine, the New York Times motherlode blog, and Sunset Magazine among others. She has worked as a watershed coordinator, ran a stable, shelved books at a library and created, marketed and ran Starfish Catering. She lives in California and is on staff at the Glenn County Resource Conservation District.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Melinda Backer is a lecturer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Currently, she is researching the ways trees speak in science fiction. When she’s not working, she and her family admire the trees in Smoky Mountain National Park.