Discussing the age old issue of humanity vs nature, tree expert Dr. Patricia Westford says she already knows “which side will lose by winning.”
Dr. Westford is one of a dozen characters in Richard Powers’ gut-wrenching novel, The Overstory, who dedicate their lives to the understanding and preservation of trees. We watch them grow up, each childhood touched in some way by the trees around them. As they mature so does their understanding of what’s happening to forests.
One responds by becoming a tree planter for the forest service, one by studying the psychology of why some people can see the truth while the rest turn a blind eye and one simply keeps watch over a colony of old-growth Sequoias in the park across the street. But one by one they’re called to action, battling lumber companies, politicians, the justice system the ignorance of the masses.
In a world where we continue to kill fifteen billion trees every year, I don’t need to tell you whether or not The Overstory has a happy ending. But in spite of its inevitable trajectory, this book is one of the most compelling and inspiring books I’ve read this century. In the end I was too stunned by its powerful indictment of humanity to feel anything but despair.
But Richard Powers is nothing if not a master of seduction. He lures us into this story with childhood tales and the mystery of trees. And, course, we come to believe in his characters, rooting for their success. Even as we share in the blunt truths that raise the ire of our treehuggers – like the U.S. Forest Service designing untouched trees as ‘vista corridors’ along highways to hide the clear-cut forest beyond them — Powers assuages our pain with an abundance of happy moments.
Imagine the otherworldly bliss of two tree-protectors falling in love while living in the crown of an ancient Redwood, two hundred feet in the air for an entire year. They befriend salamanders and flying squirrels that have never known or touched the forest floor. They read to each other. He sketches her hour-by-hour in all the ways that capture her bond with the tree.
People falling in love with trees is the very heart of this story.
- A farm family rallying around a flourishing chestnut tree planted by their great-great grandfather that dwarfs their farm house and defines the Iowa landscape for miles around.
- The Chinese-American dad who plants a Mulberry tree for each of his three daughters when they’re born and begins planning in February for the family’s next summer trip to visit the trees in the National Parks they’ve not yet explored.
- The childless couple who plants and forgets a yard-full of trees only to have the trees rescue them from failing health and loss of spirit in their old age.
These and half-a-dozen more life stories weave through decades of modern life in America. But they are only half of the novel. Made more so by our astounding lack of knowledge about them, the trees in this novel emerge as endlessly fascinating characters.
“Dragon trees that bleed as red as blood. Jabuticaba, whole billiard-ball fruits grow right out of the trunk. Thousand-year-old baobabs, like tethered weather balloons loaded with thirty thousand gallons of water. Eucalyptus the color of rainbows. Bizarre quiver trees with weapons for branch tips . . . the sandbox tree launching seeds from its exploding fruit at 160 miles per hour . . the Tachigali versicolor that flowers just once in its lifetime just before it dies.”
Powers touches our romantic bent by telling us of Douglas Firs that marry their roots together eventually sharing all their life-giving fluids as one living entity. He tells us of the ‘giving trees’ who, just before they die, download all their inner nutrients into the roots of their children. And he reminds us how remarkably industrious trees are throughout their lives.
Right now, more than 60,000 species of trees are hard at work running field tests, experimenting with chemicals that protect them and help the forest around them. At this very moment trees around the globe are conducting billions of experiments with their resin acids, flavonoids, terpenes, alkaloids, phenols and corky subernis. And while they adapt, finding new ways to nurture themselves, they generate a thousand things useful to humans. Their sap, leaves, blossoms, bark, berries and nuts all have medicinal properties.
We know about aspirin derived from birch bark and more exotic examples like the red stinkwood tree that indigenous people in southern African and Madagascar use to cure malaria, fever, kidney disease, urinary tract infections and prostate cancer. But pharmacologists and botanists readily admit, we don’t even know what we don’t know.
Or as Powers says, “It may take centuries to learn as much about trees as people once knew.”
Powers writes fluently about chestnuts, oaks, aspens and lintels throughout his storytelling. But he relates tree science through Dr. Patricia Westford. Dedicated to understanding trees since she was a little girl riding through Midwest farmlands with her botany-loving father, Westford is the author of The Secret Life of Trees. Though Westford’s book is panned by her fellow scientists when it comes out in the late 1970’s, by the 21st century every tree-lover and botanist in the country quotes her work like bible passages.
Powers makes no attempt to disguise his use of The Hidden Life of Trees, the real life book that was the subject of my last blog. For all I know he stripped all of Dr. Westford’s lectures directly from Peter Wohlleben’s book. It doesn’t matter. Clearly, The Hidden Life of Trees is pre-requisite to reading The Overstory.
But if Wohlleben’s book is an advanced freshman botany course, Powers’ 500-page tome is a PhD treatise cross-referencing human history, geology, psychology and the study of trees. His story is mind-bending. But it’s the suffering souls of its characters that overwhelm me in the end.
After finishing it late this morning I let The Overstory swirl around in my head as I had breakfast, chatted with my lovely wife and went through my daily routines, checking in with the outside world. When the online news stories no longer held my attention, I knew it was time to let the full experience of this book course its way through me.
Lucky enough to live a stone’s throw away from it, I walk down to the ocean. When I’m finally settled into my favorite spot in the dunes, surrounded by flowering ice plants and tall spiky beach grass, nothing but the sound of the surf in my ears, sparkling waves as far as the eye can see, I marvel as I always do at the magnificence of this planet. I take a deep breath and let The Overstory crash over me like a giant wave.
It sweeps me out to sea and drowns me in sorrow.
The sadness that wells up in me is not for the trees, or for mother earth. It’s for humanity.
In her old age, after Dr. Westford creates a massive seed vault for trees, hoping that some future humans will have evolved enough to value them, she’s invited to speak at a climate conference hosted by Stanford University. After an hour of waxing nostalgically about all the wonders of trees, she says she ready to answer the question of the day, the purpose of the conference, ‘what can we do to save the planet?’
To avoid being a spoiler, I won’t tell you the dramatic version of Westford’s answer. But I will explain it.
Her answer mirrors mine. The planet doesn’t need us and doesn’t need saving. It’s human life on this planet that we need to save. The truth is that earth would be better off without us.
It’s not a good idea to wipe away tears when your hands are covered with sand, so I leave it to the sun. Breathing easy again, grateful for the isolation of the dunes, I think about the irony of what I’m doing. While I mourn the trillions we’ve already killed and the millions of lovely, sentient trees that are wiped every day, I sit looking out to sea, not a single tree in sight.
While The Overstory makes even giant Redwoods seem fragile in the face of relentless human greed, the ocean is humbling. I might have gone to sit under my favorite Eucalyptus today. But I’m still mourning its neighbors, a swath of them cut down a few months ago by the park department. Today I needed the roar of the ocean to remind me of an indomitable earth.
Tomorrow I will summon my courage, enough to forgive myself and my fellow humans, enough to re-establish hope for our future. Meanwhile, I thank Richard Powers for hitting me over the head with the truth.