Writer and artist Salli Hipkiss shares an extract from her novel’s manuscript — a glimpse into the heart of the story and its forest, and further into the development of character, meaning and writing for the ‘We Generation’.
2,560 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes
In her first post in this two-part series, My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis, Salli explored her motivation for setting out to write The Riddle of the Trees as a creative work on climate change.
The Riddle of the Trees
Jeanie left the light and shimmer of the hilltop views behind her. The track curved northwest and soon she was enveloped in the cool, cushioning shade of the forest. Among the trees the sharpness of the light and the edgy whine of insect-sounds softened into a diffused hum. She followed the track through the Treefarm until she reached a junction. She knew the way well. Her route home took the neatly-kept right-hand track south through the Treefarm towards the town, while on the left two crumbling stone pillars were all that remained of an ancient gateway, and an overgrown path led into the heart of the old-growth forest: the wild place known as the Olgro.
The evening humidity was making her breathless and she stopped at the gateway, leaning her bike against one pillar. A large, moss-covered stone had long since fallen from the gateway making an impromptu seat. She sat down, pulling a bottle of water from her rucksack. While she drank she looked back into the Treefarm. The rows of managed pines and beeches stretched sedately into the distance. The trees seemed cool, quiet and orderly; but also quiet in terms of diversity, of life, of spirit. Jeanie turned to look through the gateway into the Olgro. Sitting here at the junction, the contrast between the two parts of the forest could hardly have been greater.
Have you ever been to an Olgro? An old-growth forest? A truly ancient old forest? A forest that has never been cut or cleared: where for thousands of years there have been trees at various stages of growing up, growing old, dying, or slowly sinking back into the earth to become nurseries for new sapling trees?
Have you been to a forest where the numbers of different species of plants and animals and insects and fungi are so great that new species are constantly being discovered even after centuries of scientific study? Where the different life forms have lived alongside one another for so long that insects have begun to look like flowers and flowers like the insects that feed from them? Where the contrasting scents of honeysuckle, damp moss, rotting wood, tang of fox, and a metallic mix of ozone and ore, constantly assault and allay your senses in equal measures?
Have you stood in a forest with your ears full with the fizz and hum of insect flight, the creak and rustle of giant trees in endless movement, and the staccato chatter of numerous birds? Where before long you can’t help but find yourself falling back into the steps of an ancient dance that has been going on, unbroken, for millions of years?
Jeanie let her eyes wander, flickering between the trees, plants and flowers on the other side of the gateway: seeing them tumbling over one another, winding around one another, or even growing up through one another. She measured trees supporting ivies taller than the tree itself; lianas draping themselves between branches; ferns and epiphytes growing in the crooks of trunks high above the moss-dampened forest floor. It looked chaotic but Jeanie knew from Gramps that it represented a harmony of the highest order.
Or it had done… Jeanie scanned the rich texture of the forest again, her eyes narrowing. As she looked more carefully she felt her chest tighten and something shift beneath her ribs. Something was wrong. Her heart began to thump, sounding a warning. Gramps was right. The trees had changed. She closed her eyes to listen to the subtle pulse of the forest, searching for an explanation or even an adequate description. But she couldn’t find one, just a strong intuition that all was not as it should be. Opening her eyes, thoughts began to form. On many trees the leaves had a certain transparency. A frailty. A ghostliness even.
Suddenly she knew what this was. It was what Gramps had feared the most. This was Disintegration.
(Excerpt from The Riddle of the Trees, © Salli Hipkiss 2008. Latest edition 2017. As yet unpublished. All rights reserved.)
Love for the natural world
Following on from my previous post about the writing of my manuscript for the young adult audience, I was encouraged by ClimateCultures to share an excerpt from the story. After deliberating, I decided upon the above passage from near the beginning of the book. I could have ‘cut to the chase’ (for there is a chase of sorts in the story!), but for a story like The Riddle of the Trees it feels more appropriate to give a glimpse into the heart of the story.
In The Guardian in 2015, Patrick Barkham, quoting from Matthew Oates’ book In Pursuit of Butterflies, wrote:
‘Environmentalists desperately need poets and storytellers, Oates contends, because ultimately conservation is concerned with “mending the relationship between people and Nature”. Science may clarify priorities “but the whole show is essentially about Love”.’
This love for the natural world is what motivates me to create work to inspire change, and it is what motivates several of the characters in the story. It is also a reason for creating a novel as a vehicle for exploring environmental issues. This is an art form that allows for a broad expression of emotion: one that can take on love and joy, and also despair, frustration, anger, animosity and other emotions that difficult challenges like climate change can invoke.
I have always been interested in stories that follow several characters with similar, if not equal, weight, and in writing The Riddle of the Trees I gave myself this challenge. Quickly, within a few chapters, the book establishes that we are following not one, or even two, protagonists but several, forming a sort of holistic composite character. In creative work I like messages that run deeply, like the grain through wood, acting at the structural as well as superficial levels, and in my story there is a deeper meaning behind having a number of viewpoints, which is to illustrate this idea of holism: that we need diverse talents and insights from various quarters in order to ‘crack the codes’ to solve many of the world’s environmental and other problems.
Forest — a riddle for the many
At the geographical centre of the story are Jeanie, a lonely teenage girl, and Gramps, her forest keeper grandfather, who separately realise that a serious, mysterious ailment has befallen their beloved forest. In his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker argues that most stories fit into one of seven structures. At first encounter The Riddle of the Trees might appear to follow the structure of a Quest, one of the seven plots Booker listed. The fierce love Jeanie and Gramps feel for the forest certainly leads them to undertake a quest to save the trees. However their quest is just one aspect of the story, and actually, if pushed, the plot better resembles a Comedy, not in the sense of a humorous piece, but a comedy in the Greek tradition, or one of Shakespeare’s comedies, in the spirit of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. As the title suggests, The Riddle of the Trees is threaded through with riddles, muddles and misunderstandings that need a combination of wisdom, wit, courage – and love – from a number of characters to reach a resolution.
Thus there isn’t one main ‘celebrity character’. The driving forces are care and compassion, even from the apparent antagonist who rather than being evil is instead mostly misguided and attempting to solve the forest’s disease and its potentially escalating problems by exercising greater and greater control, but at the expense of other freedoms. His power, his inflexibility, and his inability to listen to others’ advice make him dangerous. But he is not evil.
This distinction was important to me. When I first started drafting the story I had a wonderful discussion with a Japanese friend about the Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli and the sort of films that the house then created. My friend pointed out how the seemingly ‘bad’ characters in Studio Ghibli films were not ‘beaten’ by the good characters as they might be in a Hollywood movie, but instead underwent some process of transformation during which their frightening or dangerous power was dissipated. Often this was through their becoming properly understood where they weren’t before. For example, in Spirited Away, a witch figure returns to being a benign old lady, and a raging river spirit calms to a benevolent one when his polluted water is cleaned and he is called by his rightful name. This process of transformation and the possibility for redemption resonated with me and are further grains that run through the heart of the story.
The Riddle of the Trees is a story for young people about challenging the status quo, about following one’s own path and passions and conscience, and about forming friendships that transcend difference and constraint.
Reading again through the excerpt I have chosen above, I find myself bringing to mind the poem The Road Not Taken, published in 1916 by Robert Frost.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…
…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Jeanie in the story starts as ‘one traveller’ in another sense: she is lonely, and soon also carrying a burden of responsibility to solve a difficult mystery. However through the course of the story she and a number of other characters become newly connected and collectively are then able to solve some difficult problems. Although the novel is set in a future where mobile phones and social media are no longer ubiquitous, because young people live in a world dominated by these forces now I feel they will recognise the strong impulse to connect and form community — including globally — that lies at the heart of the book.
Perhaps the ethos of self-reliance and independence that Robert Frost was championing in his poem is no longer the prevailing ethos of the younger generation today. Reflecting on his famous ending line “… I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference” it seems notable to me that the lines imply the difference made to one life only: the speaker’s own.
Instead, young people today, when asked what they want to achieve in life, will often answer: “I want to make a difference” meaning a difference in society, environmentally or in other altruistic ways. The millennial generation has been named the ‘We Generation’. They are much more aware than previous generations that in order to thrive as a species, as a whole planetary ecosystem, and also as individuals, we need to think in terms of interdependence rather than independence. This ‘We’ rather than just ‘Me’ way of thinking gives me hope for the future.
In Sharon Blackie’s thought-provoking 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, Blackie comes to a similar conclusion about the need for a change from the prevailing myth of many generations, outlined clearly by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1990 book The Hero’s Journey. She writes:
“Campbell’s Hero’s Journey… is entirely focused on an individual’s spiritual growth and personal transformation – the process which Jung called ‘individuation’. But the journey we need to make today is one which rips us out of the confined spaces of our own heads and plants us firmly back in the world where we belong, rooted and ready to rise… We are not separate from this earth; we are a part of it, whether we feel it fully in our bodies yet or not… The Heroine’s Journey we need to make today is, above all, an Eco-Heroine’s Journey.”
In The Riddle of the Trees Jeanie and her various companions’ separate and collective journeys all lead to a common mission: to save the forest and restore harmony. To attempt this, all need to tap, like roots, into the groundwater of their own talents and passions and to offer them to the whole. Blackie continues:
“…And if we rise up rooted, like trees… well then, women might indeed not only save ourselves, but the world.”
In another wonderful book from 2015 The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy affirms:
“We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about [nature], which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.”
For my part, I would be delighted if The Riddle of the Trees helped inspire a stronger feeling of rootedness, of connection with the natural world, an appreciation of its awe-inspiring beauty and ability to bring joy, and of what we stand to lose if we don’t care for what we have, while also engaging young people in a deliciously complicated but very heartfelt adventure story along the way.
Find out more
Our first post from Salli Hipkiss, in which she wrote about the inspiration behind her writing The Riddle of the Trees, was My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis. And Salli’s recent poem, Modest Things — asking how English poet, artist and radical William Blake might have responded to climate change and what examples we might take — is published at Finding Blake.
Patrick Barkham’s quotation from Matthew Oates is in his review of three books on butterflies; Rainbow Dust; The Moth Snowstorm; and In Pursuit of Butterflies review – three tributes to the humble Lepidoptera, published in The Guardian (16/7/15).
You can find out more about Sharon Blackie’s work, including her 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, at www.sharonblackie.net And you can download a sample chapter from her publisher, September Publishing.
Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) is published by Bloomsbury, and Wikipedia has a brief summary.
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey was first published in 1990, with a revised edition published by New World Library in 2003.
The full text of Robert Frost’s classic poem, The Road Not Taken, is available at Poem Hunter, where you can also hear a recording of the poem.
Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm – one of the three books reviewed in the Patrick Barkham article mentioned above – was published in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was released by Studio Ghibli in 2001. In a 15th-anniversary review at Vice (20/7/16), Hannah Ewans discusses The Meaning of Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’, the Best Animated Film of All Time.