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.

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