The title of this memoir derives from the Native American custom of bending a tree’s growth in order to indicate a direction of safe passage.  The custom represents a reverent cooperation with nature through which a compassionate communication is accomplished: a message to other journeying souls as to how they might find a way to their flourishing.  The title is exquisitely apt for this memoir, which echoes the gesture of the arrow tree, testifying to a safe passage through the wilderness of COVID.  The author, a first-rate, published Victorian scholar, contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 upon her return from a sabbatical at the University of Cambridge, which was cut short as a result of the pandemic. 

Weliver has suffered from symptoms ever since: hers is the experience of living with long COVID.  The condition warrants her taking a leave from her university, and she returns to her childhood home of Interlochen, in northern Michigan.  Her living in and engaging with the natural world there encourages her to undertake meditations about that world and her place in it as she lives with her illness.  The writing—the foundational means of her healing—inclines her, crucially, to think with the stories of the Odawa (Ottawa) and the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Anishinaabek ("Original Man") of the region, which she researches as a means of deepening her understanding of her home, her origins, and the nature of her identity.  Her quest for understanding turns not only to these stories, but to an integration of them with the wisdom of other guides in her life: authors of the Romantic and Victorian periods, poets and thinkers of Taoism and other ancient Eastern philosophies, mentors in her rich journey of studying both literature and music (she attended Interlochen Center for the Arts, Oberlin, where she double-degreed in English Literature and Voice (Music), Cambridge, and the University of Sussex), and her own family, particularly her mother.  Her prose is accessible and welcoming, not at all the erudite sort one might anticipate from a reputable scholar: it invites curiosity and encourages insight that is, at times, breathtaking and joyous.  This “arrow tree” memoir points its readers in the direction of a safe passage to the home of our natural world, where, in finding union with that world, we may experience healing not only from COVID but from habits of the heart that have left us more broken than we know.


In a recent Medicine and the Machine podcast (26 March 2021), Danielle Ofri, Eric Topol, and Abraham Verghese reflect, among other things, upon what genre may be best suited for framing the voice of literary response to COVID--in light of atrophied attention spans (cultivated by social media), brain fog, headaches, and malaise.  Ofri considers that poetry might have a place, owing, presumably, to its succinct expression; but engagements with poetry often call for levels of sustained concentration and modes of cognitive work that render Ofri's consideration less than compelling, in my view.  The Arrow Tree offers an alternative prospect.  It is a memoir, but the experience of engagement with it is richer than such a categorization would suggest.  I would describe it as a prose experienced as choral song: an absorption in it brings about the joy and connection one feels in singing an old song with friends, where the unisons and harmonies of voices shared gather all into a space of safety and solace, of recollection and refuge--of being home.  Weliver’s response to her illness is to return home, which amounts to a Wordsworthian migration of returning to nature.  As a means of understanding her place in this nature and seeking her new identity within it, Weliver finds herself drawn to the legends and ways of knowing embraced by the Odawa and Ojibwe, inhabitants of the region in centuries before the arrival of her own ancestors.  The old song to be sung—an ancient ode of healing—is deepened and enriched and nuanced by the addition of these voices attuned, from long ago, to the truth of this music.  The memoir brings these voices into resonance with those of Romantic and Victorian authors, of Eastern poets and philosophers, of mentors and parents—with the effect of re-acquainting us with a familiar sonority and beauty.  It’s the experience of the old song, that, in this era of COVID, bears us away to the home of our healing.    
In his book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, Paul Woodruff points to the string quartet as a manifestation and embodiment of reverence in our world—of awe, that is, for something greater than ourselves: the music and its beauty, in this case, which we may help make manifest to the senses and our fellow human beings, but only to the extent that we listen devotedly to the contributions of others and attune our own contributions to theirs.  There’s an emptying of concern over individual performance as such, and a relinquishment of any competitive or egotistical spirit: the wholehearted concern is for the music and beauty to be brought forth, which can be accomplished only through the relational, intersubjective functioning of the players.  Choral music works in similar fashion: the song and its beauty are to be accomplished only by means of a constant relinquishment of self on the part of the singers, whose voices are shared only in attunement with others’ and in the deep longing for union with a beauty beyond any individual human being’s capacity to produce or control.  To share in such singing is to abide in the humility of reverence, to dwell in the home of the human, to feel the healing power of forces greater than our own.  Weliver’s memoir brings us into such a chorus of voices.  Lending her voice to the song as it ever attunes itself to the voices of others, Weliver bears us into the experience of reverence for our world and our lives—into a space that we realize is the home of our being.  It is utter calm: the tranquil, still water of inner peace.

In the progress of this memoir-song, there are patterns of repetition that one could construe as echoic musical phrasing or a kind of refrain.  In the wooded, water-wonderland that is the region around Interlochen, Weliver observes or encounters something in the environment—an element of the landscape, a tree, an animal—and these trigger for her intensely fond memories of childhood.  Like Wordsworth, she grasps that her affections for and understandings of these elements have been and are altered as a result of life-experience. These “refrains” of meditative patterns shape the arc by which the progression of the memoir-song and Weliver’s evolution and growth proceed.  At the risk of mixing metaphors, I'm inclined to regard the progression as reminiscent of Tennyson's stepping-stone In Memoriam stanzas: moving ahead through persistent steppings-back; and I hear in it the percussive wash and rasp of Arnold's waves on Dover Beach. The rhythm, motion, and movement ever proceed, though, to a condition of calm and serenity.     

Weliver’s engagements with nature, reconsidered through the language and thinking of the Anishinaabek, lead her to epiphanic insights that become, by means of her recounting, our own forest bathing: “In the generosity of an ecosystem that gives of itself in order to support life,” she writes,
this animate world offers restoration to us—members of its family . . . the Anishinaabek belief is that going into the wild and requesting aid will bring a response from those living forms that must be understood holistically as physical and spiritual.  Repeatedly, writings by those steeped in Anishinaabek teachings reassure that the natural world does not care how you ask for help.  There is no formula.  The trees, animals, flora, mountains and bodies of water understand your heart and respond. (52)     
Weliver’s is the voice of “the wounded storyteller,” as Arthur Frank would conceive of the role she plays: a prophetic role, informed by the experience of long COVID, through which she speaks truths of human frailty and the healing powers of the living, nurturing Earth, our family and home.  And she speaks truths of the music that heals as it rises within us: “Song celebrates such beauty,” she says,
With music, the soul answers the earth’s spirit.  Unlike my formal voice training of planting my feet and taking a breath to sing, the song of the earth now wells up within me in heartfelt thanksgiving.  This is the music of unconditional love expressed through abundant life.  The radiance with which my heart answers thus offers something of my spirit, and this reciprocity reechoes in nature’s responsive rejoicing. (54)   
“What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?” asks George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss.  Weliver echoes the question.  And in the choral performance she orchestrates of this old song celebrating being and belonging to the earth, she asks again, perhaps.  She reminds us of things we desire and need to hear again—things we listen for in the music of lullabies, hymns, and odes—of how we are loved and how we love, how to let ourselves feel the profound calm of a heart brimming with exultation in such knowledge, how we find healing in our arrival home.


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Pacific, MO



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