Twice funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities for her scholarly work, Phyllis Weliver is Professor of English at Saint Louis University. As author and editor, she has published prolifically for twenty-five years. Her most recent book is The Arrow Tree: Healing from Long COVID, a lyrical memoir of recovery in wild Michigan. She has also published monographs with Cambridge University Press, Palgrave Macmillan and Routledge; edited two volumes of essays; and lectured internationally, including at the request of the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Music. Originally from Michigan, she now lives in Missouri with her husband, son and two cats.
The natural environment is not just a setting for my creative nonfiction; it is part of my formative identity. When I was growing up in the northwestern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, my bedroom window looked out on a first growth forest (Michigan’s first state park). My family and I spent time in these woods on a daily basis, walking, bicycling, sledding, or cross-country skiing. We played games among the tree trunks, and my brother and I learned the world through the woods as our mother placed our little hands on the trees to learn the texture of bark, asked us to breathe deeply the smell of white pine, and to watch and listen to the wind in the leaves. The Interlochen State Park sits on a narrow peninsula between two lakes, and during the summer we also swam in Duck Lake (originally Wahbekaness). In the depth of winter, we shoveled off the snow and would ice skate. I learned a way of being from this deep immersion in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
When I went on to study literature, it is perhaps unsurprising that it was Thoreau and Wordsworth to whom I was first drawn. I wrote my Oberlin College English honors thesis on these two writers, even though I went on to develop a scholarly expertise in the literature and music history of Victorian Britain. My creative nonfiction, however, is more personal. Inherently, it’s place-oriented nature writing.
The Arrow Tree: Healing from Long COVID is a book about finding health in and because of the natural world. I fell ill with COVID-19 in March 2020. It was quite early in the pandemic, before there was awareness of the consequences of the disease – that it could have symptoms that lingered for months past the live virus. Once I was no longer bedridden, I felt strongly pulled to return to my childhood home. I wrote The Arrow Tree in the neighborhood where I grew up, in a 1930 stick-built, uninsulated summer cottage that we now own. This small cabin is situated in the woodland overlooking a land conservancy and Lake Wahbekaness. It’s just down the road from the first growth forest. Whether I was lying in the hammock, walking by the lake, or even sitting inside the cottage, I was immersed in the rhythms of the natural world.
The structure of The Arrow Tree follows the trajectory of getting better as I experienced an integrated health of person with environment, and of mind/body/spirit. Each chapter therefore pivots around an element of the natural world (the forest, the lake, seasonal change) or a creaturely encounter. A trail marker tree in the neighborhood became a symbol for how to navigate what seemed like a deep, mysterious wood (the illness). Because my mother used to set me on this trail marker tree when I was a small child, seeing it helped me to feel connected to my own past as well as to the Odawa people who bent the tree long ago and who are still present as neighbors and friends. I thus returned home, but also reinterpreted it from a different vantage point, thinking about the stories of the Odawak, synergies with ancient Chinese philosophy and medicine, and links with British and American literature. The trail marker tree thus became the arrow tree of the book title, layering together past, present and future to contemplate how to find a more balanced and joyful life than has become typical in workaholic America. The arrow tree points to the natural world.
For me, co-creating with the natural world is about being viscerally present, both in the place that I’m writing about and through the writing process itself. It’s about seeking to be, rather than do. To write in this way, I’d suggest forest-bathing with all senses fine-tuned to the setting, and then letting your imagination play with language in an attempt to do justice to what you observe both in the external world and internally, in your response to it. The associations spin out from there.
I find that the writing material influences what you end up creating, too. Handwriting has always felt more personal to me. It grows out of a lifetime of journaling and allows me to access another part of myself – to say things that I would have trouble expressing on the computer. In contrast to my scholarly writing, which I do compose on my laptop, I wrote The Arrow Tree in a series of notebooks of about 40 pages (6½ x 8½ inches in size) – one for each chapter. Writing in a slim exercise book offers enough space to really try some things out (including making mistakes), and groups all your thoughts about one topic in a manageable space. These exercise books have gorgeous covers and quality paper; they make the whole writing process enjoyable. To me, this creative practice feels more in tune with natural processes than does word-processing. Of course, the composition does eventually need to get entered into the computer, but by then the original co-creation has occurred, and what remains is a final editing.
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Image information: 1. First Growth Forest. 2. October, Wahbekaness. 3. November Sunrise, from the deck. 4. The Arrow Tree painting and cover design by Emily Bracale. 5. December Sunrise, through the window. All landscape photos by Phyllis Weliver, 2020.