Tending the Tree of Life

26 January 2015

Tending the Tree of Life
by Irwin Kahan
illustrated by Wendy Winter
Published by Wild Sage Press
Review by Jessica Bickford
$25.00 978-0-9881229-8-7

Tending the Tree of Life is Irwin Kahan’s memoir chronicling his life from growing up on the Saskatchewan prairie, through the second World War, and onto his work trying to improve health care for those suffering from mental illness.

I learned so much from Irwin’s story – from the struggles of pioneering while attempting to keep the Jewish faith, to the difficulties of trying to finish high school by correspondence lessons, and even to what it’s like to take LSD (for science, of course).

Irwin’s optimism is clear throughout his story.  Despite the obvious hardships he and his family faced, not only with rampant anti-semitism, but simply surviving the harsh farming conditions of the prairies and then the horrors of World War II, Irwin refuses to complain.  He is endlessly focused on the good – his friends and family and the occasions where he felt he was doing good work to help others.

I was so interested to learn about Irwin’s work trying to have mental illness, especially schizophrenia, recognized for what it is – an illness, rather than a social problem.  I feel I almost owe a debt to him, and those like him who fought to improve in-patient facilities and advocated for the treatment of the whole person to improve mental health.  As someone who has struggled with depression, it is people like Irwin who I thank for starting the line of thinking that people with mental illness shouldn’t be stigmatized or medicated into a stupor.

It was also enlightening to read his personal account of growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan’s early days.  I had no idea there were so many Jewish families that helped to forge our province.  In fact, the ‘Farm Life’ section of the memoir would be a fantastic thing for kids learning about pioneer days in Saskatchewan to read because it is a simple account full of funny little stories, but enough information to paint a very clear picture about what life was like.  My personal favourite part of this section was Irwin talking about the pet turkey he had and how he got in trouble when he brought it to school!

Tending the Tree of Life is a snapshot of a life well lived and spent dedicated to helping others.  We can all learn a bit about optimism and how your approach to the world, especially in how you treat others, can make any life, even one full of hardships, an incredible and rewarding journey.


One Comment

  • Rosalie Moscoe 8 February 2015 at 3:20 am

    My mother and her family also grew up in Saskatchewan and shared those early pioneering days of living on a farm. As Co-chair of the International Schizophrenia Foundation, I commend Irwin Kahan for his work to improve mental health care and his dedication to help others. I look forward to reading Mr. Kahan’s book and also having him inducted into the Orthomolecular Medicine Hall of Fame at our spring, 2015 conference. Congratulations on a beautiful, robust, fruitful life and now this important chronicle of a piece of history through this wonderful memoir, Tending The Tree of Life.