Books: Tall Trees Short Stories by Hemery

From Living Woods issue 60

Writer LAWRENCE ILLSLEY admires the breadth of storytelling in Gabriel Hemery’s latest collection of short stories

LW book review

Gabriel Hemery
£10.99 (paperback)
£3.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 9781916336230

Tall Trees Short Stories Vol 21 is the second collection of short stories written by renowned silvologist Gabriel Hemery. It follows in the arboreal footsteps of his first collection and will delight readers who share Hemery’s abundant love for the forest.

The stories in the collection offer as much variety as a woodland bursting into life. Each is different and showcases Hemery’s engaging, often gleeful, prose and empathic understanding of people. We meet a wide range of characters, from a Parisian inventor to Terry who lives in a tower block. My favourite perhaps is the young girl who reads Woodlore for Young Sportsmen (originally published in 1922) and thinks the author has made a big mistake not including girls. A belief which adds a refreshingly contemporary touch to the narrative and is the first example of a theme, repeated throughout the book, where characters embody modern concerns.

Although conceptually grounded in the present, the stories themselves range across the centuries. We travel from the Victorian era, through the wars, pause at mobile phones, before diving headlong into the future. Hemery is certainly an author who knows no bounds. This breadth of storytelling may have lost coherence were it not for the ever-present trees, which slowly emerge as the real heroes of the book.

Many tales are focussed upon a particular tree, a potent device suggestive of Overstory by Richard Powers. The trees provide a fulcrum, an axis-mundi, for the story – a plane tree in ‘In Plane View’, a sweet chestnut in ‘Fin’. Woodland trades and woodcraft occupy a similar role in the narrative. We meet coopers, sawyers and even silvologists when, unusually for fiction, we get a glimpse of the author himself in Tall Stories, Short Trees (an intentional jumbling of the title of the book). ‘His woolly hat looked sodden and a permanent drip of moisture hung from his nose. He looked happy, like he was in his element.’

I appreciated the introduction. Hemery is clearly someone who knows an incredible amount about trees and wants to share this knowledge. This is a man whom we want to hear talk about trees. Technical information about each tree is slipped into the stories. But this knowledge, gleaned from years of practice, enhances rather than undermines the storytelling. Hemery has the scientist’s eye for detail and the writer’s ear for words. He not only knows about trees but loves them too. Much of the detail he shares with us is descriptive and personal, such as the crack of beech twigs in spring.

This collection is both human and natural, urban and wild. It allows us to consider the connections between us and the world we inhabit rather than focussing on the separation between humans and the Earth. It seems to me that if we are to reverse some of the impact of our tenure on this planet we need to learn how to reconnect with the landscape and how we can live alongside, or even with nature. Books like Hemery’s are a wonderful place to start.

Lawrence Illsley is a writer and poet. His collection A Brief History of Trees was published by Live Canon in October 2020.