Monday, June 25, 2018

Love-Sickness With Trees ~ A Review of Richard Powers' The Overstory: A Novel (2018)

On an August evening in 1877, Walt Whitman wrote that the sunlight and shadows playing upon trees revealed “new amazing features of silent, shaggy charm . . . .”
In the revealings of such light, such exceptional hour, such mood, one does not wonder at the old story fables (indeed, why fables?) of people falling into love-sickness with trees, seiz’d extatic with the mystic realism of the resistless silent strength in them – strength, which after all is perhaps the last, completest, highest beauty.  (Specimen Days)
Clearly, some of us fall into love-sickness with trees, rendering us vulnerable and often inconsolable as old growth timber is cut down.  It’s an emotion born of deep time and of the polarized present when our national parks have become, not a safe haven for nature, but a commercial enterprise whose elements above and below ground are ruthlessly exploited in the name of jobs, progress, and an ever unsustainable standard of living for the developed world.

As I once again retreat to my small corner of the woods on the North Fork of Long Island for the summer, trees enter my consciousness even more profoundly than they do at other times and in other places.  I have this love-sickness for the leaning hickories, monstrously tall oaks, and straight maples that grow around me here.  Seen below is one of the huge, crookedly branched white oaks and an American beech, the tallest I’ve ever seen (no, that's not a wood sprite at the foot of the beech, it's the result of trying to protect the privacy of this location).

Novelist Richard Powers, author of such intellectually challenging and often emotionally moving novels as Orfeo (2014), has produced what I can only call THE novel of trees, a tragic story shot through with the consequences (realized and potential) of our myopic, gravely wrong assault upon them.  It’s a beautiful, complex novel, populated by a cast of finely wrought characters and grounded in the science of trees and the planet.  If one is open to it, this novel will spread the love-sickness for trees.  It will also enthrall, anger, and, yes, depress.

At the outset, the reader is introduced through free-standing, engrossing sketches, to individual, disparate characters who have no obvious connection one to another – much the way humans have considered trees for millennia:  as separate specimens, alone and disconnected.  But these fictional characters, it turns out, are intimately joined as are trees in reality.  Several of them will eventually find each other in the Northwest in a tragic fight against corporate powers that treat trees as just another short-term asset.

Perhaps the lynchpin for all of the novel’s characters is Dr. Patricia Westerford, whose original work showing that trees communicate broadly and deeply with one another is, at first, applauded, but then vilified by the scientific powers that be, relegating her to a scientific Siberia.  As Barbara Kingsolver notes in her review of the novel – perhaps the most glowing review of a book I’ve ever read – these characters are, indeed, fictional, no matter how real they and their life histories seem (she Googled them).  (The Heroes of This Novel are Centuries Old and 300 Feet Tall, New York Times, April 9, 2018.)    Patricia will reemerge vindicated decades later, her science proven, and the author of a best selling volume titled The Secret Forest, which will be one means of connecting the novel’s characters.  Early in her professional and personal exile, she wanders through an aspen forest in Utah which, as she notes in passing, is not a collection of myriad individual trees but a single organism, a vast root system that produces trees.
She wouldn’t be surprised if this great, joined, single clonal creature that looks like a forest has been around for the better part of a million years.  (p. 131)
The novel instructs us that the aspens here have become a single, self-perpetuating creature because their seeds do not do well in this climate.  We also learn that though other species of trees are not clonal creatures, they are intimately linked to others, with root systems that stretch out to different trees (of their own species or others) in the forests, often mediated by vast symbiotic networks of fungi serving to connect the trees for nutrients and, indeed, for communication.  The aspens and the interconnectedness of other species offer Powers metaphors for how his characters will join, communicate, support, and, often, protect, each other.

As Patricia (“Plant-Patty”) wanders the aspen forest, Powers notes that she is ignorant of the other characters of the novel but their connection is real and will play out in the future.
These people are nothing to Plant-Patty.  And yet their lives have been connected, deep underground  Their kinship will work like an unfolding book.  The past always come clearer, in the future.  (p. 132)
In many ways, the novel is a vehicle for teaching us about the miraculous lives of trees, sentient beings upon whose health (so we come to know in the course of our reading) our future on this planet depends.  The opening lines of Patricia’s The Secret Forest, or their same sentiment, are repeated several times in the novel.  Though we and trees have gone our separate ways for a billion and a half years (when last our common ancestor lived), “that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes . . . .”  (p. 132)

And, still, despite our closeness and the benefits that trees bestow upon all living creatures, we have not behaved well toward them.  When we humans first appeared on this plant, there were some 6 trillion trees.  Now there are half as many and in another century only half of those will survive.  Too much wanton, thoughtless destruction.

Psychologist Adam Appich, whom we first meet as a doctoral student studying idealism among the “tree huggers” who are fighting to save old growth forests in the Northwest, is asked early on what will persuade the world that they’re right.  He says,
The best argument in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can do that is a good story.  (p. 336)
This novel is that story.  I sincerely wish it well.

In closing, I must voice my regret that I found I could not follow through on my original plan of reviewing not only The Overstory but also Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World (2016).  Why I reacted negatively to The Hidden Life of Trees, to the point I could not finish it, is not clear.  His hypothesis that trees share, communicate, react, remember (through their genes, I'll accept) is one that I support.  I'll admit that I may be unfair to him.

Nevertheless, The Hidden Life of Trees seems lightweight, neither a detailed scientific study marshalling all of the evidence to prove the hypothesis nor an example of the best of popular science writing which would explore not just Wohlleben’s forest but delve into the work and lives of some of the scientists making the discoveries that support the thesis of his book.  It’s rather ironic, I think, that I found the Patricia Westerford’s The Secret Forest, though a fictional construct, to be more real, more persuasive, than Wohlleben’s volume.  Perhaps it’s because I knew her intimately through the novel.

Maybe it was a tell-tale sign that I started noting in what I read all of the many times that Wohlleben anthropomorphized trees (e.g., “Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies?  It seems they do, though the idea of ‘class’ doesn’t quite fit.  It is rather the degree of connection – or maybe even affection – that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be.” ("affection"?, p. 4)).  Is that a possible criticism to be leveled against The Overstory as well?  Perhaps.  Could I accept that in the novel but not in the nonfiction tome?  If so, I'm not sure why.  Powers describes a mystical bond between trees (source of voices in the background) and some of the human characters in the novel which I accepted, but, then again, it is a novel and it’s telling that necessary good story.

[My apologies to anyone who read this post in the first couple of days it was up.  It abounded in typos and other nuisance errors.  I hope they all have been corrected now.]

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