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The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology Paperback – July 1, 2009
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"[Bringhurst] is part MIT and part California ashram; when reading him one has the unusual sense that the writer, even without his writing, would be an interesting guy."
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I've read most of his published work and can't come up with a complaint that he doesn't undo with some other piece. I suppose he may never be Mainstream, at least in his lifetime, if that can be considered a flaw.
Jim Harrison, in his introduction, says that Robert Bringhurst's prose "...tends to push at the confines of whatever room you are reading in so that the four corners seem to be much further away than normal." He is exactly right. And often the four corners fall away altogether. Bringhurst reveals a landscape that is luminous, deeply symbolic and saturated with meaning. It is not only the natural world it is--surprise!--your own consciousness joined with it. Consciousness, that fine and rich field that has been so depleted by the stupidity of modern life, suddenly stretches away freely in all directions.
Creativity once again opens outward, and the natural world once again speaks inwardly. Nothing has really changed except your way of perception, but sometimes that means that everything is irrevocably changed. The shift was so slight and so deft that you don't even know by what magic this happiness was achieved.
One of the lectures, called Poetry and Thinking, is so rich with ideas that you will find yourself staring out the window, lost in thought, after almost every paragraph. It's not that the ideas are difficult or dazzlingly intellectual; it's that they are so simple and true and so worthy of contemplation. You stare into space, and space stares back. Space is nothing you will want to take for granted.
In the final essay, Bringhurst says: "Poetry is the breathing hole in the ice of identity." It's not a beautiful metaphor, and I don't know why it has stayed with me instead of one of his other remarkable phrases. Maybe because is it so uncomfortable, and so effective, as imagery. The entrapment beneath the layers of self, the desperation to escape, with only the most tenuous of openings. Being, vital and resonant, flourishes on the other side of the ice, but how do we access it? Poetry?!? Yes, poetry. The last open conduit. Is there an opportunity to expand the breathing hole--to break through the ice of identity altogether? Yes. It requires poetic thinking. Thinking that includes deep valuation of solitude; a humble interaction with wild places and wild creatures; a respect for otherness; a slow reading of human and inhuman signals; and profound awareness of language as the medium of our experiences.
In this book, language is working through the agency of one who knows its subtlety and power. The richest aspects of art, self and nature are explored. There are marvelous passages on almost every page. It's a restorative experience to enter Bringhurst's world. His thoughts greatly expanded the dimensions of my own.
I'm reading it for the second time, and frankly, I didn't really get it the first time. I mean, I UNDERSTOOD it; I wasn't baffled by it or anything, but I just didn't get how great it is, I wasn't as moved by it as this time.
"The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology"-- what the heck does all that mean? Well, I can't explain it, or certainly not in this short space, but I can say that after reading the book (well, one and a half times), I get the title; I see the relationships there, and that's what the book is about. Once you get the title, you don't need the book any more (but you can still enjoy it).
I can't quite make out what Bringhurst does; like the book, he doesn't fit any categories. He's a poet; I don't know if he's an anthropologist or linguist or not, but he seems to know a lot about those fields; and he's an expert on typesetting. The book is a collection of talks he's given, and one of the themes of the book is how various artistic modalities (painting, carving, written literature, oral literature) fulfill the same function (and by the way, I'm choosing my words very carefully, but still not satisfied; you just need to read the book, maybe twice, and if I get that across I've succeeded)-- and how each such modality has its own integrity. The book has its own integrity too, even though it's a diverse collection of originally spoken pieces. You have to read several of these diverse pieces before you start to get the common theme-- which I can't summarize.
Here's a quote, and I won't attempt to set it up; I just want to give this quote because it's beautiful, and exemplary. Speaking of how in the twentieth century, many great, previously unknown North American literary traditions were written down even as their languages and cultures disappeared, he says "The museum full of stuffed and mounted stories is now huge, but the forest where languages nest and literatures breed has been mercilessly cut".
He talks about how some European paintings, and some Haida carved plates, convey myths. One I really didn't get before is about a Velasquez painting where there's a realistic painting, almost a still life, of a kitchen maid in her kitchen, with a minimalist drawing of the risen Christ dining with friends at Emmaus, stuck off in a corner, looks like a mistake, and actually it was painted over for hundreds of years; but when you get it, that drawing illuminates the world of the other painting. I'm clear that that's what Velasquez intended too, not just Bringhurst's sophisticated idea. It's about the myth in the drawing stuck off in the corner, and how it illuminates the prosaic world of the rest of the painting. Similar disquistions on other Renaissance paintings, Native American carvings, written and oral literature, and how they all convey myth, gave me a sense-- not just an idea-- of how those disparate artforms are indeed all the same thing.
I hope that's enough to get your interest.