If you think nature is about survival of the fittest, consider fitness as a collective term.
In Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory, nine people come together after life-altering experiences with trees to work to prevent the destruction of forests. Things don’t go so well for the trees, but in the end we see how redemption belongs to them, not us. I found it deeply moving, even transformative.
Patricia Westorford is a botanist who comes to understand the familial nature of trees in the forest, that they bond together into one unit.
The things she catches Doug-firs doing, over the course of these years, fill her with joy. When the lateral roots of two Douglas-firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through these self-grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless thousands of miles of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests . . . It will take years for the picture to emerge. There will be findings, unbelievable truths confirmed by a spreading worldwide web of researchers in Canada, Europe, Asia, all happily swapping data through faster and better channels.
Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t red in tooth and claw, after all. For one, those species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons. But if trees share their storehouses, then every drop of red must float on a sea of green. (142)
Everything in the forest is the forest: how can one be more inclusive than that? The Overstory is a story about trees and our human failure of them along with just about everything else at this tragic moment of green history. We as a species are just too late in understanding what a unity we live in, that our extractionist greed has sawed off the very branch we were meant to sit and sing upon.
In her notebook Patricia writes,
Trees know when we are close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes of their leaves pump out change when we’re near … When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. So many wonder drugs have come from trees, and we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the offerings. Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear. (424)
Unfortunately, the human community fails this 4-billion-year old history in spectacularly bad fashion, cutting some of the great remaining old growth trees, including the one named Mimas,
wider across than his great-great-great-grandfather’s old farmhouse. Here, as sundown blankets them, the feel is primeval, darshan, a face-to-face intro into divinity. The tree runs straight up like a chimney butte and neglects to stop. From underneath, it could be Yggdrasil, the World Tree, with its roots in the underworld and crown in the world above. Twenty-five feet aboveground, a secondary trunk springs out of the expanse of flank … Two more trunks flare out higher up the main shaft. The whole ensemble looks like some exercise in cladistics, the Evolutionary Tree of Life — one great idea splintering into whole new family branches, high up in the run of long time. (260)
It is the one tree that must be saved from the loggers, and it’s the one they cannot. The loss is staggering to the woman who believes the tree had once promised her that no one be harmed. She stands next to a stump that is taller than her and breaks down sobbing. Her friend tries to console her, but “There are consolations that the strongest human love is powerless to give.” (550)
It is tempting to take up arms here against the earth-killers – some of the protagonists do — but the gesture is futile. All they can do is plant seeds against a future no one may see.
The Overstory is a vital yet heartbreaking book, transforming author and audience both … the way a forest joins all in its work.
In an interview with Ezra Klein, Powers spoke about how his own perception had changed as he was writing the book.
I think what was happening to me at that time, as I was turning outward and starting to take the non-human world seriously, is my sense of meaning was shifting from something that was entirely about me and authored by me outward into this more collaborative, reciprocal, interdependent, exterior place that involved not just me but all of these other ways of being that I could make kinship with. And when you make kinship beyond yourself, your sense of meaning gravitates outwards into that reciprocal relationship, into that interdependence. And you know, it’s a little bit like scales falling off your eyes. When you do turn that corner, all of the sources of anxiety that are so present and so deeply internalized become much more identifiable. And my own sense of hope and fear gets a much larger frame of reference to operate in.
… I would say, for my journey, the way to characterize this transition is from being fascinated with technologies of mastery and control and what they’re doing to us as human beings, how they’re changing what the capacities and affordances of humanity are and how we narrate ourselves, to being fascinated with technologies and sciences of interdependence and cooperation, of those sciences that increase our sense of kinship and being one of many, many neighbors.
This carried over to Powers’ next novel Bewilderment, where a widowed astrobiologist seeking signs of life in the universe and his hypersensitive and grieving 9-year old son are caught up in the agony of observing an Earth in peril. They find solace in the wild — in an author’s note, Powers explains that bewilderment originally meant that, returning to wilderness — but the dystopic human world keeps interfering and we are harrowed by the modern sense of the title. The ending is tragic and sad for the inescapable conclusion we all face. I am gripped by how wanton and careening the news of our sickening Earth is these days; nothing seems to be able to belay its fate. The Holocene has ended in the violently changing moment we are now in.
If there’s a note of grace or hope, Powers approaches it at the end of The Overstory with a quote from The New Metamorphosis by Charles Bowden:
The Greeks had a word, xenia — guest friendship — a command to take care of traveling strangers, to open your door to whoever is out there, because anyone passing by, far from home, might be God. Ovid tells the story of two immortals who came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees — an oak and a linden — huge and gracious and intertwined. What we care for, what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer … (498)
Three poems suggest this intimacy.
TRYING TO PRAY
This time, I have left my body behind me, crying
In its dark thorns.
There are good things in this world.
It is dusk.
It is the good darkness
Of women’s hands that touch loaves.
The spirit of a tree begins to move.
I touch leaves.
I close my eyes and think of water.
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
For this challenge, write about what we care for and resemble, remembering that everything in the forest is the forest.