The underlying theme of ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers is that we are working on our own destruction when we go on a hell-bent spree of destruction of our trees. And that resonates with me.
Shortly after I moved to New Zealand, I acquired a boyfriend who was passionate about showing me this new country I had chosen to come live in.
He was a pilot with a small-plane license, and I was shown both the North Island and the South Island from the vantage point of the air – I saw the Waikato River glow gold in late afternoon sunlight, I saw the perfect cone of Taranaki (and was told “don’t whimper” when I first caught sight of it), I saw the magnificent fjords of the South Island and the glory of Queenstown where I first stood up on a pair of skis… but there is one moment, in all this. One. The one that left me speechless in the face of a miracle.
John had taken me for a hike in the kauri forests of the north, to show me the remnants of these magnificent trees – growing straight and strong and flawless, they had been decimated during the tall-ship era because they made such absolutely perfect masts with a minimum of extra effort. What was left of them was treasured and protected, but all of it was second-growth forest, still young, still nurtured into its potential.
But there was one tree.
It had survived the predators. It had survived so much more. It had a name – Tane Mahuta; it was named after a Maori god, Tane, the son of Ranginui the sky father and Papatuanuku the earth mother. Tane was the child that tore the parents apart, the pillar that separates heaven and earth,, and then set about clothing mother earth in the forests we know today. Maori legend has it that all living creatures in the forest are Tane’s children.
Nobody knows exactly how old Tane Mahuta is, but estimates range between 1250 and 2500 years. At a height of 45 metres, or 148 feet, it is the largest kauri left standing today, but those are mere statistics. I was aware of them, going in. This was going to be one big tree. I was braced for that.
My shoe came untied on the way up the trail, and I paused to re-tie it, and then got up and took a few steps with my eyes still on the ground and on my feet as the trail made a final fateful turn.
“Look,” John said.
“Yeah, yeah…” I began, and lifted my gaze. From the ground. Onto roots. And then up. And up. And up. And up. Until my eyes were lost in the clouds caught in the tree’s crown.
I stood there with my mouth open, literally struck dumb, my head tilted back, dizzy, bewildered, feeling very small, very insignificant, standing in the benevolent shadow of – yes – of this GOD. I don’t think I fell to my knees. I do think I wanted to.
I was a gnat. A flea. A moment of insignificant time. This creature… had lived forever.
Individual trees aside, I have forests inside me.
One of my favorite Ursula Le Guin novels is one of her Hainish novels, entitled “The Word for World is Forest” – I was sold on that before I read a word of it, because of that title.
Forests have always been a part of my heart. When I was young, there was a wood close to a weekend cottage and a small scrap of vineyard my great-uncle owned on the hillsides of the mountain that rose beyond his town. That is where I learned that there was a special quality of light that occurs only when sunlight is filtered through green leaves – the Japanese have a word for it, komorebi. The sound of birdsong from the midst of komorebi is enough to give heart’s ease even now, even in the memory of it. Powers writes of forests from the point of view of his characters –
“Turns out that the temperate jungle’s million invisible tangled lops need every kind of death-brokering intermediary to keep the circuits coursing. Clean up such a system, and the countless self-replenishing wells run dry. This gospel of new forestry is confirmed by the most wonderful findings: beards of lichen high in the air, that grow only on the oldest trees and inject essential nitrogen back into the living system. Subterranean voles that feed on truffles and spread the spores of angel fungi across the forest floor. Fungi that infuse into the roots of trees in partnerships so tight it’s hard to say where one organism leaves off and the other begins. Hulking conifers that sprout adventitious roots high in the canopy that dip back to feed on the mats of soil accumulating in the vees of their own branches.”
Forests are living organisms. I have always known that. Reading this book is like reading a gospel of a faith I never knew I professed, that of love for trees. Others in this book share it:
“Love for trees pours out of her – the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety and surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature.”
This comes out of the book, and it wraps around you. If you’ve ever felt anything good for trees, it wraps around you. This book makes you root for the activists and the “eco-terrorists” and the scientists and the artists and all the people who have seen a tree and fell in love. “We have a living to make”, the loggers say, and the corporations who make the wood into useful and beautiful things say, and yes, they do, it’s all true – and you feel guilty, guilty, heartsick, knowing it anyway. You’re for the trees. Why can’t we all be for the trees?
Powers is right, we often don’t ‘see’ trees. Sometimes it takes something larger than life to make us remember.
I can do no better than to give you what I wrote back in November of 2008, on a trip to California.
November 18, 2008 – On the Avenue
We departed our motel bright and early and drove off into foggy drizzle. The entrance to the Avenue of the Giants was only a handful of miles up the road and we found it without difficulty… and crossed some sort of permeable barrier into a land of pure magic.
In the beginning they were still big enough to dwarf anything I’d ever seen before, but that quickly changed, and they grew ever bigger, broader, wider, more magical, with faces etched into ancient bark.
Our first stop, only a little way into the Avenue, was the “Living Chimney Tree”. This astonishing creature was completely gutted on the inside by a ferocious fire, and you can now go into a “room” inside the tree, some 12 feet across, and look straight up into open sky – the thing is completely hollow.
The tree is hale and hearty and obviously still living because there are green needles on it outside.
The fire happened in *1914*. The Great War was still raging at the time that this giant burned. Women were still wearing long skirts and long hair and button-up boots. NINETEEN FOURTEEN. For a century this tree has stood here, living, breathing, its heart ripped out by fire.
We went on. The road winds through groves of gigantic trees, some of which stand RIGHT next to the road, if you reached out your arm out of the window of the car you could touch them. It was the most heartstoppingly beautiful, amazing place I have ever ever ever ever ever seen.
I told my husband that the what I got from these trees was a sense of royal and dreamy detachment. They gaze down upon us and sigh – We are here. We have always been here. Touch us, mayflies, and then vanish while we endure, we live, we go on. We go on.
I cried, more than once.
Someone along the way circled one particular spot on the map we had of the Avenue, and said, “If you stop nowhere else, stop here.” The place was called Founder’s Grove, in honor of the founders of the redwood national parks. And so we saw the sign for Founder’s Grove, and dutifully turned in.
And I cried.
The Founder’s Tree is huge and stately and dominates the entrance of the nature trail. But a little beyond, lying on its side after it fell back in 1991, is a tree called the Dyerville Giant. It is… impossible to take in. This tree’s exposed rootball is THREE TIMES MY HEIGHT. I walked along the length of it that remains, fully one hundred and fifty paces, and at the end of this the tree, lying sideways, was STILL above my head – broader, even at this point, than I was tall. And that was not the end of the tree, which went on for two thirds again as long off into the forest.
I cannot even imagine this giant as it must have looked when it was still upright. Nor can I imagine the sound of thunder it must have made when it fell. Or the shaking of the earth as it was pulled out from it, and stretched its length out upon it. One felt as though some sacrifice was necessary, as though there should be a shrine where one could kneel and offer up dreams in little redwood caskets and pray for life and love and immortality. Because this… this is a fallen god of ancient times. There is no other way to describe it.
Further on, nearly at the end of the Avenue, we came upon the Immortal Tree. This tree has survived two lightning strikes (its height has been noticeably diminished by these), a flood (there is a fish affixed to it to mark the high-water mark of the great flood, and it’s QUITE considerably above my head) and man (there is a mark where people tried to hew the thing with axes, and failed miserably in the attempt). It survived all of this, and it’s huge, and hale, and hearty.
I went up to it, and I stroked its bark, and I kissed it.
“Live long, and prosper,” I whispered into a crack of its weathered ‘skin’.
And I cried. Again.
I will never forget the redwood groves.
“The Overstory” isn’t a perfect book, by a long shot. (If you’d like my take on this, email me.) But one of the human characters speaks of something that profoundly moves me: “She remembers the Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen that destroy it.”
And this is the line that brings me home to a poem by a poet I revere, a poet whom I have read when very young and who has never failed to move me, a poet for whom, when she died, I wrote an obituary in verse which was actually published in an account of her funeral by an expat magazine mourning her a long way from the cradle land we all shared.
This particular poem may in fact be untranslatable in pure meaning, because it is so rooted in the history and geography and the frame of mind of a particular nation, a particular people, a particular culture.
But it speaks of the value of trees, and what it means to be poor, and how it is possible to sell your future for the survival in the here and now. So I tried to translate the words themselves, in the hope that some of this comes through:
(translated by Alma Alexander)
In Brankovina they are cutting down trees now
And taking them into town to sell.
The poor people are cutting down young forest:
Beeches whose bark is still bathing in mother’s milk,
Young cedars barely beginning to grow.
All the livelong day, bent over, they cut
While the sun travels across the sky.
Only when the priest comes down by the river for evensong
They sit on the stumps they have made and reach for the bread in their bags.
On the following day they load a small ox and head for town,
A piece of corn bread in a bag on their backs for their lunch.
They leave behind empty slopes beside their homes.
Slowly they walk in the shade of other people’s trees.
The shade of their own forest they will sell in the town,
Their naked hills will stare at them in despair.
They will bring home only poor shoes, and candles,
And a few rough pieces of rock salt.
It is entirely possible that the roots I have in poetry like this have deeply colored my response to “The Overstory”. It is a book that has had a deep and visceral effect on me. It’s shaken me, and hurt me, and made me sad, and made me angry, and made me want to run out and hug the nearest tree and lay my cheek against its rough bark and call it my brother or my sister and ask its forgiveness for that which we do.
We are all a part of the forest. For the sins we commit against trees, humanity will one day be called to account. And this book, this novel, this may be one of the pieces of evidence that is brought by both the prosecution and the defense. It’s a tour de force. And if you have ever been awed by a tree, plucked an apple or a cherry from a tree and ate it, sat in a tree’s deep companionable shade in summer or huddled against its protective bole in the wind, kicked your way through autumn leaves of red and gold or collected conkers from underneath towering chestnut trees, ever smelled the sap of a young pine or heard a bird hidden by foliage sing its heart out to you somewhere high up in a majestic crown – if you have looked at a tree and have seen it, really seen it, enough to stop and tell that tree you loved it, even if it’s just a silent moment of joy only inside your own heart which you shared with nobody except the tree and yourself – you will find something to love in this book.
This book has the soul of a tree.
Let it touch yours.