Recently, a trio of dear friends, with help from a fourth, threw a book reception for Divining, A Memoir in Trees.

The Venue

The setup of the room at the community center was so unexpectedly beautiful, I gasped when I walked through the door. Afternoon sunlight slanted through the west wall of windows. Round tables were covered in white linen tablecloths, punctuated by bud vases holding long-stem ivory roses with blush edges.

A beverage bucket held bottles of Perrier in ice on one table. (There were other drinks, but I was greeting guests!) A large wicker basket of Kathy’s homemade lemon iced cookies–cut into the shapes of maple, white oak, and beech/elm leaves–waited on another. (There were other snacks, but I was signing books!)

A gorgeous arrangement of more of the same roses and giant white chrysanthemums was placed on a high-top table next to the podium.

I clearly recognized the signature of my friend Val, a newly-retired physician and “the hostess with the mostest,” who makes parties, all kinds of parties, succeed, while making their creation appear effortless.

The Guests

The party scene came alive when many friends of mine from different facets of my life–family, neighbors, book group members, writing group members, writing workshop members, other writers, and singers among them–began arriving. The place filled with a thrumming vibrancy. Greetings, smiles, hugs, and conversation, galore! What a treat!

(I joked with Kathy the next day at our yoga class that it was like being able to be with all of the people you imagine might come to your funeral–something that had never crossed my mind before. Except in this case, I was very much alive to enjoy the sum of their company.)

At the door, I had posted a sign asking the guests to include the species of their favorite tree on their nametag. So, “Mary Robertson,” became “Mary Birch.” She was joined by Tim Sycamore and Elissa River Birch.

The Book Table

My friend Laurie had created a very attractive table from which she’d be selling and I’d be signing books.

As president and publisher of a reference publishing company creating nonfiction titles for school and public libraries, and author of 83 books (!), she was the perfect person–one with a lot of experience of selling books from tables–to be in charge.

I find it enough of a challenge when signing the title pages of my books not to inadvertently write what people are saying in conversation on the other side of the table. Let alone adding the tasks of selling the books, giving change, keeping track of sales to the mix. Laurie had everything ready to make it a breeze for me and began selling books before the program began.

The Program

I was introduced by Kathy. While serving as the editor of my first book, Great Lakes Island Escapes: Ferries and Bridges to Adventure, Kathy became a friend in a way I hadn’t expected to make a friend at the end of my fifth decade. She has supported me from the very beginning with this book. She, herself, is an excellent writer and knows me well, so what she wrote and presented was the loveliest introduction to the book I could ever have imagined.

When I came to the podium, I took the opportunity to first thank the many people who helped me in a variety of ways while I was writing the book–sending me photos of trees, links to articles about trees, other books about trees, even maps to trees I should visit. A fair number of the people I had recognized in the book’s acknowledgments were now seated before me. This included a number of individuals as well as the members of two of my advanced writing workshops–the Ladies of the Long Table (aka LOTLT) and the Zoomers–and my singing group, the Awesome Altos.

For my reading, I chose to read several excerpts from two of the book’s 16 essays: “Massacre in the Grove” and “Rocky Mountain High.”

At the end, when I asked if anyone had any questions, I was delighted by the number of people who had comments to make about trees as well as questions to ask. And such good questions they were!

The Assignment

Before the event, I created a worksheet to help people start thinking about their own relationships with trees and left enough of the spring-leaf green sheets to go around on each table before the guests arrived.

On the worksheet, I provided some questions to prompt them to start them thinking about their own tree stories, the memories of trees they had from their childhood, and the relationships they had with trees today.

How would you respond to the questions below?

When you were a kid, did a tree ever hold a special place in your heart?

Consider these possibilities and beyond:

  • When you were growing up, was there a tree that you climbed?
  • Have you ever had access to a treehouse?
  • Was there a tree in your yard, schoolyard, or your place of worship that had been planted in someone’s honor or memory?
  • Was there an outside tree your family decorated for a holiday?
  • Did you know of a tree holding a bird’s nest?
  • Were you aware of a tree that bloomed in the spring, or one which bore fruit?
  • Did a tree in your yard ever lose a limb to the wind or its life to a storm?

Currently, does your life include a special or favorite tree?

Consider these possibilities and beyond:

  • Did you have a tree damaged this past winter or another by winter storms?
  • Have you ever had to have a tree removed?
  • Have you ever missed a tree after a storm took it or it was cut down?
  • Have you ever hired an arborist to advise you on a tree’s health?
  • Have you ever nursed a tree back to health?
  • Have you ever planted a tree? If you have, why? (As a replacement for a removed tree? For beauty? In honor or memory of someone? For shade? Something else?)
  • Do you know of a tree that has held nesting birds? Is there a tree in your yard holding a birdhouse or birdfeeder? Or a tree that is nearby outdoor birds’ food source?
  • Do you have a tree that you notice daily from a window in your house or office in all seasons of the year? Which is your favorite season of observing this tree?

What is your tree story?

That was–and is, for you, too–my final question.

Remember, I mentioned that many of the people at the book party were writers. By my count, there were at least 23 serious writers in the room. That was almost half the total number of guests present.

And a few of those writers immediately took me up on my challenge to write a tree story of their own. Within 24 hours, two submissions arrived in my inbox.

“White Birch” is the first submission I received, written by writer Mary Robertson, who is working on the final draft of the manuscript of her memoir I’m Sorry for Your Loss: One Woman’s Journey Through Love, Loss, and Renewal.

White Birch


Mary Robertson

We vacationed every summer on Silver Lake in northwestern Wisconsin. My love affair started there. With birches. The clumps of them that my grade-school self could fit inside.

Many decades later I bought land in northern Michigan with huge birches adorning the bluff that led to the lake. My college friend who was an artist sketched one of them as her entry in the log book each guest signed.

A decade later I bought a beautiful Georgian home from the 20s with a birch clump in the front yard, where my own children hid and played. When it was time to leave that house and the man I shared it with, I found a rental with birch trees in the front yard and took it as a sign that the move was my destiny.

Now I live permanently in the North, where my birches are dying.

An arborist asked, “How old are they?”

I replied, “They were here when I came 40 years ago.”

“Oh. Well, birches only live about 50 years.”

I will need to plant some new birches, for I cannot imagine looking out my window and not seeing their white bark, the eye-like markings of their trunks staring back at me, reminding me of the progression of my life.


Looking Forward

Thank you for sharing your tree story, Mary!

Maureen Shaughnessy, whose submission arrived second, has agreed to allow me to publish her short piece of memoir, “Willows,” in its entirety on my weekly blog posting of April 17th.

For next week’s blog post, I hope to share an interview with Vikki Munroe, who, against some mighty big odds, managed to save quite a number of trees from removal recently.