The Trees of Calan Gray, by Danial Neil

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Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life. ~Hermann Hesse. (First page of The Trees of Calan Gray)

Synopsis: Calan Gray talks to trees. They speak back to him. Not in words, exactly; he hears the language of trees. They become his sanctuary against a violent father who wishes to commit him to an institution for expressing such delusions. It is 1964, and the world is a harsh place for those who are different. 

I have had my eye on The Trees of Calan Gray for quite some time now, so I was so very pleased to have received a copy from Oolichan Books. (And, I have yet to read a book published by Oolichan that isn’t an incredible reading experience! They publish the most satisfying and wonderful books.)  I didn’t quite anticipate the intensity I felt from The Trees of Calan Gray however. I found it to be a book I never wanted to put down. There was this incredible amount of intensity when reading, and when I did put it down, I realized I had been holding my breath the entire time!

The book is broken down into two major parts: The Language of Trees and The Morality of Trees. And in each of those two parts they branch into chapters named for trees. In The Language of Trees the chapters are entitled, Aspen; Willow; Yew; and Arbutus. In the Morality of Trees: Cedar; Birch; and Fir. I’ll admit to not looking into the symbolic meanings for naming the chapters after these specific trees when reading. I didn’t look any of this up until now. And now, I’m completely blown away at how each chapter’s tree is so relevant to that part of the story. For instance, the first tree (and pictured above) is Aspen. “The Latin name for aspen is ‘populus tremula‘ meaning trembling poplar because the leaves of the aspen appear to tremble in the wind. In Celtic mythology this visual effect was said to be the tree communicating between this world and the next.”

Calan’s father is an intensely unhappy, mean and violent man. Calan is a great disappointment to his father and he is relentlessly punished for it. He is intent on sending Calan away to an institution and is especially hell-bent on sending him away after he discovers Calan in a forest of aspens talking to them. Calan truly feels he can hear them, he feels they send him warnings, they signal when something bad is about to happen, and provide safety when it is needed. In this chapter, the effect where the trees are communicating to Calan is a very powerful one indeed.

“There at Gray Farm where joy had no memory and happiness was a futile longing.”

For the Willow (also pictured above) its meaning is: “It represents balance, learning, growth and harmony. Our image of the willow tree represents the strength, stability and structure of the trunk, standing firm and withstanding the greatest of challenges.” This next section represents the meaning of the willow exceptionally well also. Calan and his mother, with the help of her father Dunmore (Grandpa Dunny) plot their escape from Gray Farm.  (Strength, growth, withstanding the greatest of challenges.) Again, the intensity in the writing of their escape is one where I held my breath even more. Was I even breathing at all when reading this book??

“I found my suitcase, opened a drawer and removed my sketchbook and Trees of the World. I put them in the suitcase and made for the door. Then I turned to look at it, that room where I had lived my whole life. There was a Roughrider penant on the wall and a picture of Gordie Howe from the Star Weekly. Nothing else, only the bed where he hurt me with his belt, his bare hands. The sight of it gave me an empty feeling, a feeling of something wasted. I left it all.” 

How incredibly meaningful these trees become when contrasting them against their specific chapters in the book. For me, Aspen and Willow were the most powerful, along with the following section called Arbutus. “The Arbutus tree is also known as the Tree of Depth and Integrity, and is symbolic of protection and safety.” My mind is blown with the matching of the symbolic nature of these trees and the story in their named sections!! Arbutus is where Calan is living with his grandfather in British Columbia, safe and far away from his father and Gray Farm.

I will admit that in this second part, The Morality of Trees, I found the original basis where Calan is communicating with the trees to have fallen away somewhat. Perhaps this was purposely meant, where Calan is a bit adrift in his life, but the intensity and significance of communicating with the trees is largely absent here. The story begins to wander a little here for me as well. However, once we reach the end, and in the section entitled, Birch, does the power and emotion return. The symbolism of the Birch tree? “Birch is the first of the tree symbols… Known by the celts as Beith (pronounced ‘bay’) it is the symbol of new beginnings, regeneration, hope, new dawns and the promise of what is to come. The tree carries ancient wisdom and yet appears forever young.”

Okay, because here, in this section, this is where Calan returns to Gray Farm to confront his father after many years away. (regeneration, hope, new dawns and the promise of what is to come.)

“He looked straight ahead, his head shaking slightly. He grew tired with the conversation. He wasn’t amused with the way I spoke to him. No one had ever said a disrespectful word to his face. Yet now he seemed to recognize that I wasn’t the same kid who had wilted under him those years before. Nothing was the same. It seemed to me that no amount of scrubbing would make him clean. I was not so sure why I stayed. I never took pity on him for the malady that had a hold on him. His legacy was violence and abuse, and he was so fouled by it that I wondered if he would dissolve, the hot water rendering him down until he drained away.” 

The Trees of Calan Gray would make an exceptional book club selection! To tease out the symbolism with the trees, to discuss and break down the meaning of each tree given to each chapter, would make for some incredible group discussion! I’m certainly impressed with the symbolism of just the few trees I looked up and contrasted against their designated chapters. The lyrical writing also provides a wonderful reading experience.