Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

 This timely novel is a must-read, especially for those who love trees. Through characters of varying ages and dispositions, we learn about trees as members of larger organisms – an aspen grove, for example, is a single “tree” with multiple sprouts – the ways they communicate, share defenses against insects, fire, and other risks, and how vastly we have underestimated their capacities. Our studies of sentience have all been focused on behaviors and characteristics that mirror ways humans behave and comprehend. But trees are a whole different world.

In this novel we meet an anomalous chestnut – after American chestnuts by the millions were killed off by an imported fungus – and through a family’s obsessive photographing of the tree over many decades, a flip-book is created that compresses time, showing the growth and glory of this single specimen. Then we meet two-thousand-year-old redwoods near the northern California coast, through the eyes of the few humans who see their value beyond board-feet of lumber – one couple live on a platform 200 feet up one giant for over a year while the company that has purchased the lumber rights to its grove try various tactics to get them down. The treetops are an ecosystem apart – the tree-sitters find salamanders living in a pool well above their platform, and flying squirrels visit nightly, and other species sprout from this benevolent matriarch of a tree.

Though I have not done extensive research myself, what I have read corroborates what Powers writes, including an “eco-terrorist” group that torched ski area buildings, nonviolent actions in which peaceful protestors suffered what amount to torture techniques at the hands of the authorities: pepper spray applied by Q-tips to their pried-open eyes, tearing off the pants of a man who climbs a tree, then repeatedly spraying his genitals with Mace – and so on. How dire a threat are these protestors, that makes treatment of them so out of proportion to their acts?

This book teaches us enough about the symbiosis between plants and humans to make us tremble for the future we are creating, focused so narrowly on human needs and desires that we fail to sustain the ecosystems without which our very survival becomes questionable. As one of the tree-sitters says to another: “We don’t make reality. We just evade it. So far. By looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won’t be able to pay.” A biologist whose research into tree communication had her laughed out of academia, who continues on her own because she feels she must, is called as expert witness in the challenge of permits to log old-growth forest. She reflects, “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.”

The author, through a character, observes: “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs… 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.”

It’s time to start seeing trees, acknowledging their primacy as our partners in survival. They are the carbon sink we need right now. Instead of cutting them down in ever larger swathes, we need to nurture what remains, especially the ancients that harbor the greatest diversity, and we need to plant more, not for monocropping tree farms but for our future. READ THIS BOOK! Then go plant some trees, and start noticing how much your own blind consumption of wood derivatives feeds the cycle of destruction. Be a better resident of this planet, before it’s too late.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Truth, a film by Hirokazu Kore-eda

This first-rate film explores the relationship between mother Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), and daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) during a visit by Lumir’s family – herself, husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), and 9-year-old daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) – to Fabienne’s home in Paris. Fabienne is working on a film – a small part, but what she gets these days. One of her co-stars is Manon (Manon Clavel), a woman 40 years her junior who strongly resembles an actress, Sarah, whose career the jealous Fabienne derailed many decades before.

Coincident with this visit is the release of Fabienne’s memoir, which Lumir avidly scans for mentions of herself: memories she considers inaccurate, and the absence of events significant to her childhood. More than once characters say versions of “Memory is faulty” – certainly true, but that fog is no match for the self-serving inventions of mother and daughter. It is the mark of great acting and a careful director that our sympathies turn from one to another – as soon as we meet Lumir, we feel the slights she carries so vividly – but as the film goes on, we see her planting her own ideas, perhaps for no better reason than to deceive her mother into some of the falsity she recalls from childhood. Even in a rare moment of closeness, the two spar.

Deneuve is magnificent: regal, helpless, kvetching, but when the camera is on her, gathers her poise about her like a beautiful robe. Her daughter is knowing and somewhat cynical, but also spiteful – she wants to rub Fabienne’s nose in the experiences that scarred her. Fabienne’s not buying it. She is blithe and vain, but also protecting herself – she cannot have the great presence she exudes if she apologizes, bends, begs forgiveness. Charlotte, too young to fully understand what the two women are doing, becomes the messenger of their attempts to reconcile or hurt each other. Hawke, playing essentially himself, watches their performances, aware of what they are doing but standing clear – this is not his fight.

Late in the film, as Fabienne praises young Manon, we think perhaps reality has broken through her high-flown vanity: she even acknowledges the qualities of her long-dead rival Sarah. But she is too shielded from the uncomfortable truth, which she has spent most of her life avoiding, to open herself to such a revision of her self-image now. No, she will continue the act that has brought her this far, saying only what she thinks she should. If we were to read the memoir, we would likely find it as self-serving as the persona she presents to the world. Somewhere in the shadows is the real Fabienne, an enigma even to herself.

Having seen Kore-eda’s film Shoplifters, in which viewers go from thinking we understand this family, to witnessing complexities that amaze and vex us, I was gratified to see that, once again, he does not stop the transformation of his characters even at the finale. By the end of either film, we feel there is still more to know about these people. In times when it’s easy and comforting to think we have people pegged, Kore-eda reminds us there is more to their stories than even they can reveal.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson

Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson
Reviewed by NC Weil

Jacqueline Woodson, well-established as a children’s book author with numerous awards to her credit, has taken her next step, into adult fiction. Her new novel, Red at the Bone, aptly demonstrates that she has plenty to say to this larger audience. Into the tale of a pair of African-American Brooklyn teenagers who fall in love and get pregnant, she expertly weaves the backstory of their lives and families.

Aubrey has grown up in many places with his single mother, while Iris has always lived in the Bushwick house occupied by her mother and grandparents. So it makes contradictory-human sense that Iris, after giving birth to Melody as a fifteen-year-old, finishes her education (with some prodding from Aubrey’s mother) and goes off to Ohio to college – being tied down to a place and family doesn’t work for her. Aubrey, meanwhile, is happy to settle in with Iris’s kin, and raise their baby.  

In the background is the issue of generational wealth – Aubrey has none; Iris’s grandmother has what she has put together and hoarded following the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, in which wealthy black Greenville was burned to the ground, and hundreds of its residents murdered, by jealous whites from neighboring Tulsa. The harsh lesson survivors drew was that financial security beholden to the white establishment could be erased in a moment – gold and property were their surest assets, the ones safest from racist attack. The fact that until 20 years ago the Tulsa Massacre was a largely unknown chapter of American history, is testament to the deliberate silence of a record written by the perpetrators.

Woodson’s writing style is replete with open spaces. I was reminded of Robert Cole’s style of sculpture, which he called Essentialism – from an iconic sculpture, The Thinker, he removed an arm here, belly there, until what remained, pared-down, was all the eye required to evoke the complete image. Woodson does the same thing in words, sprinkling memories and deeds, leaving it to the reader’s mind to put the picture together.

The story ranges from the Tulsa Massacre to the September 11 attacks, yet because the focus is on characters, we don’t feel rushed, and the pages are not crammed with more than we can absorb. Each new detail adds another brushstroke to our impression of these people, until by the book’s end we know them well. Woodson has mastered her medium, and it’s a joy to read. Brava!