I’d first noticed the buzz around the ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers when it reached best seller status, but I rarely pay attention to that. My tastes are eclectic and they and the criteria for a NYT bestseller don’t often overlap.
But this book was different.
This book was alive.
This book was a tree.
“ ‘Listen. There’s something you need to hear.’ – that is what trees would say if we could hear them. If we only would listen. But we are oh, so oblivious.”
“No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees – trees are invisible.”
All too frequently true for many of us. But then… there’s me.
There is the girl who rejoiced in wading through autumn foliage, and gathered bags full of shining brown conkers from underneath the horse chestnuts. That girl who grew into the woman who still gleefully gathers conkers and when one showed a dogged will to live by sticking out a tiny optimistic rootlet, stuck it in the ground to see what would happen. And, when a baby chestnut grew, I wept over it and gave it a name. There is a tree called Stanley in my front yard.
There is the girl who laid a hand on the gnarled bark of ancient firs and swore she could hear them breathing. The girl who gets choked up at the sight of loggers’ trucks carrying huge trees that have to be a century old.
‘The Overstory’, which now has won The Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a love story to trees. And it is deeply, astonishingly, personal for me.
Maybe I should have been prepared for its impact – but I was not, not really. I kept on reading the thing, a little bit at a time, and yes, I know I’m supposed to be rooting for the human characters… but there I was, heart in my throat, reading about an ancient tree called Mimas threatened by loggers’ saws, and making myself sick over its inevitable fate
I will never understand how someone can be proud to cut down a sequoia. NEVER.
I have loved trees all my life. It was a matter of deep personal joy for me when I moved into the home I live in today, because it is surrounded by trees. The gigantic Big Leaf Maple out back is a large part of the reason we are living in this house today. When we first saw the house, and its tree, it was in a deep dark Pacific Northwest November with a dull grey drizzle and all the maple leaves down in a massive mess out on the back deck. And yet the bones of the tree stood there and we saw the summers to come, and the shade it would cast, and the squirrels it would be home to. And so this house became home to us.
I remember a vivid dream I had that one of the three intertwined trunks of our tree had split and fallen and that I stood on our back deck weeping to see it – and I was so upset that I woke myself up and had to go out and reassure myself that my tree was still there. Because you fall in love with the things that grow and breathe and shade and add peace and beauty to your home. If anything happened to that tree I would be devastated.
Talking to trees
I talk to my trees. So do Powers’ characters :
“The prodigious forest pulls her along, past the trunk of an immense western red cedar. Her hand strokes the fibrous strips that peel from a fluted trunk whose girth rivals the height of an eastern dogwood. It reeks of incense. The top has sheared off, replaced by a candelabra of boughs promoted to stand-in trunks. A grotto opens at ground level in the rotted heartwood. Whole families of mammals could live inside it. But the branches, a thousand years on, drooping with scaly sprays a dozen stories above her, are still crammed full of cones.
She addresses the cedar, using words of the forest’s first humans. “Long Life Maker. I’m here. Down here.” She feels foolish, at first. But each word is a little easier than the next.
“Thank you for the baskets and the boxes. Thank you for the capes and hats and skirts. Thank you for the cradles. The beds. The diapers. Canoes. Paddles, harpoons, and nets. Poles, logs, posts. The rot-proof shakes and shingles. The kindling that will always light.”
Each new item is release and relief. Finding no good reason to quit now, she lets the gratitude spill out. “Thank you for the tools. The chests. The decking. The clothes closets. The paneling. I forget… Thank you,” she says, following the ancient formula. “For all these gifts that you have given.” And still not knowing how to stop, she adds, “We’re sorry. We didn’t know how hard it is for you to grow back.” ”
Trees… are personal to me.
When I saw my first baobab I immediately dubbed them the ‘upside down tree’ because the weird crown spreading from the very top of the tree looked more like a root system than any tree crown I had ever seen. But they were impressive. They were huge. There is a photograph somewhere of myself (aged about twelve), my mother, my father, and my rather huge great-uncle who was built like the side of a small mountain with a reach to match, all of us, standing hand in hand with our arms outstretched and we still only reached about halfway around the circumference of a baobab trunk.
You might think they looked bigger than they were because I was only twelve years old… but no. They were huge. They were huge and they were mysterious and they were… oddly… holy. Holy fools, standing on their heads, their roots in the air. There was a laughter about their magnificence. There was no way of knowing how old these things were. It did not matter. They had already lived forever.
Many years later I saw an article about how the baobabs of Africa were dying. From something (there is always something) dire, and mysterious, and incurable. The article said that there might come a time very soon when they will vanish, and become memory. And a part of me wanted to rend my clothes in mourning, and weep. We will not see their like again.
When we moved into our house in Zambia, the house was new construction, and its yard had been literally carved out of virgin savannah. We had tall grasses at our back fence where voles and snakes and other secretive animals that we rarely saw but often heard lived. Our own fenced yard was just as much of a wilderness, and we tried to knock a little piece of ‘civilization’ into shape – we beat the grasses into submission out back, and left it at that, but in the front yard my mother planted roses in beds close to the house, and we tried to cultivate some sort of a patch of lawn.
My father’s contribution was to take three pine saplings and plant them in the middle of that lawn in a little copse – three saplings, one for each of us, one for mother, one for father, one for child. In memoriam perpetuum – even if we went away the trees would remain, a memory of us in this place. A way to make a stand in time. ‘Killroy was here’, as it were.
The pines grew into sturdy young trees by the time we finally moved on. They were loved. They were nurtured. They had deep meaning. They were supposed to be us, but us in a form that would go on living forever, adding rings as the years accreted, growing up, growing old, carrying our memory in their roots and their trunks and their needles.
Dad was the only one who ever returned to that place after we left once, many years later. He said he didn’t know what made him look up our old house, made him go there, not to knock on doors and tell the current occupants a maudlin tale of domestic bliss a decade gone that had unfolded in that place, but just go there. To bear witness. To look.
He could barely talk about it to us, later. He regretted going. Because, had he not gone, he could have kept the memory of what had been.
Not what he found.
The three pines were still there, but they were gaunt, unkempt, unloved. He described them as three pitted trunks with lower branches long broken away, only the very tops of the trees in a tiny forlorn green triangle at the top remaining to tell that these things were still alive. He said it felt as though the trees were reaching out in agony, trying to touch the sky, to validate their existence. My father said the sight of them smote him to the core of him, that he almost felt as though he should apologize to the trees, although he wasn’t entirely sure what for. Trees are mute, but these trees clearly communicated pain.
I am just as glad I never saw them again. I would have broken my heart over them.
They may or may not still live. The tree which was supposed to be me, to outlive me, may be long gone by now. There’s a part of me that mourns that as though I have lost a sister.
The underlying theme of ‘The Overstory’ is that we are working on our own destruction when we go on a hell-bent spree of destruction of our trees.
One of the characters who forms the backbone of this book is a scientist whose epiphany (“trees talk to one another”) was such a threat to the status quo that she was mocked, ridiculed, driven from her field before the pendulum swung far enough in the other direction for her to be vindicated, and asked to address gatherings as keynote speaker, Yet there is also the very clear indication that even this swing is not necessarily real or complete, and that it may not – may never – swing far enough to mitigate the damage already done in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ and (in the final reckoning) of pure human greed:
“The prof returns to her one great theme: the massive tree of life, spreading, branching, flowering. That’s all it seems to want to do. To keep making guesses. To go on changing, rolling with the punches. She says, “Let me sing to you, about how creatures become other things.” He’s not sure what the lady is going on about. She describes an explosion of living forms, a hundred million new stems and twigs from one prodigious trunk. She talks about Tane Mahuta, Yggdrasil, Jian-Mu, the Tree of Good and Evil, the indestructible Asvattha with roots above and branches below. Then she’s back at the original World Tree. Five times at least, she says, the tree has been dropped, and five times it has resprouted from the stump. Now it’s toppling again and what will happen this time is anybody’s guess.”
This means something real to me. I met Tane Mahuta.
Part II, (including Vignette Three) tomorrow
PHOTO BY Casey Horner @ Unsplash