Christopher Merrill Gives Us a "Self-Portrait with Dogwood"

Feb 16, 2017

Different varieties of the Dogwood tree are found all over the world.  It's said the beautiful ornamental trees got their name because when the wind blows and the branches knock together, it sounds like a dog barking.   The large fragrant blooms are said to bring luck.  Christopher Merrill, a prolific writer and long-time head of the University of Iowa International Writing Program, first fell in love with the Dogwood when he worked in a nursery and garden center in Seattle.

This hour, Charity speaks with Merrill, a poet and essayist, about his new memoir, "Self-Portrait with Dogwood."  Merrill told us: "After being asked by Trinity University Press to contribute to a series of books about authors and the life of trees, I immediately thought of the Dogwood.  The series never was published, but I kept thinking about the Dogwood tree and the way it has intersected at so many decisive moments in my life.  So I thought the tree would give me a new way to not only write about the natural world, but also the whole tradition of memoir writing."

Merrill was raised on the East Coast and wanted to study at a university far away from there.   While in college at the University of Washington in Seattle, he worked at a local nursery run by "a gifted naturalist and a bit of a scoundrel."  But Chris grew to appreciate the work and seriously entertained the idea of a landscaping career (maybe to be near his beloved Dogwoods?).  He told us: "I next began working at a nursery outside of Santa Fe, living in a converted chicken coop.  But I loved the work.  The manual labor that almost broke my back got me thinking about being a writer and how writers' ideas are rooted in their work." 

We're pleased that the beautiful Dogwood, from which Native Americans used to make toothbrushes, daggers and arrows, and the medieval English used in religious ceremonies, has had a such a close connection with Chris and triggered him to write this delightful memoir.