Did you have a favorite tree as a child? Mine was the pine tree in our backyard, a bit of the wild in our tract house neighborhood where my sisters and I could climb, build a clubhouse, or imagine elves and fairies. The green needle canopy of that single pine, its sappy branches, duff carpet, and unique scent formed an entire arboreal world, Sherwood, Narnia, Fangorn Forest. And when I tired of company and play, it became a place to hide out, just the pine tree and me, my first hermitage.
Nicholas Hoel, a character in The Overstory by Richard Powers, also grows up with a special tree. For him it’s the chestnut on his grandparents’ farm in Iowa. Readers meet that tree as a nut gathered by a young Norwegian on Prospect Hill in Brooklyn in the 1850s and carried across the country when Jorgen Hoel and his bride move west to homestead. By the time Nick is born, it has become a landmark sentinel in the prairie, its growth improbably recorded in a series of monthly photographs taken by generations of Hoel men.
Mimi Ma’s childhood tree is the mulberry planted by her immigrant father in their Wheaton, Illinois backyard, “the Tree of Renewal, the tree at the universe’s center, the hollow tree housing the sacred Tao.” In this language you can hear the author’s reverence for trees, one of the many reasons I adored this book.
Nick and Mimi are just two of nine characters spread across the country, all survivors in one way or another (shot down from a plane in Vietnam, electrocuted, paralyzed after falling from a tree) with completely separate, fully realized stories, and it’s astonishing to watch the way trees bring them together. For trees are the stars of this book, the trees that connect the human characters and speak to the reader too: Listen, there’s something you need to hear.
Some of the trees I loved as a child are long gone. The weeping willow that dripped long fronds over our neighbor’s driveway was the perfect backdrop for Halloween when Mrs. Brookman dressed as a witch and – unrecognized in her theatrical makeup – passed out candy to the neighborhood children, but one weekend when the family was out of town the neighbor on the other side chopped it down because the roots were forcing their way up through his driveway. Gone too is the little grove of eucalyptus that grew in the field behind our house, taken down to make room for more houses. Perhaps the most painful loss of all was the liquidamber in the middle of our backyard lawn with its big leafy branches that turned red and orange in autumn – who says we don’t have seasons in California? One winter a storm knocked it down, and we were devastated to see it lying on its side, massive roots ripped from the earth. My father and uncle rigged ropes to hoist it upright and replant it, but the wounds had gone too deep, and the tree could not be saved. It was like losing a loved one.
An epic novel about deforestation and activism, The Overstory is inevitably also about such loss. Powers is such an effecting writer the reader can’t help feel grief when blight takes out all the chestnuts on the eastern seaboard and western forests are clear-cut, but attachment to a particular tree becomes personal and deep when two characters take up residence in a towering old-growth redwood called Mimas in an attempt to save it from loggers (think Julia Butterfly Hill but with a boyfriend). In the face of corporations that view forests as money and loggers on the ground trying to earn a living, how else can one protest and protect? But what kind of activism is ultimately effective? And when does it go too far?
One of my favorite characters is Patricia Westerford, whose speech and hearing impediments have made her feel more at home with trees than people. After studying botany in college, she finds “an animist’s heaven” in forestry school, but quickly realizes that there’s something mistaken about a field in which the men in charge “speak of thrifty young forests and decadent old ones, of mean annual increment and economic maturity.” Ahead of her time she understands the forest as an ecosystem and sets out to prove that trees are social creatures.
The book she eventually writes, The Secret Forest, finds its way to the treehouse in Mimas where the young activists known as Maidenhair and Watchman read it during their long sojourn. It reminded me of a book in real life, The Hidden Life of Trees, by a German forester. Peter Wohlleben draws on scientific research and his own experience to show how trees are indeed social creatures with friends and families.
Nonfiction is generally where I turn for information about the environment, but fiction – with its possibilities for emotional engagement and spiritual resonance – may have a role to play too. Didn’t J.R.R. Tolkien offer his own powerful plea for the earth in The Lord of the Rings as the wizard Saruman cuts down Fangorn Forest and then despoils the Shire? More recently Deena Metzger’s novel A Rain of Night Birds tells a love story while also advocating that we reclaim TEK, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, to combat climate change. What do you think about environmental fiction? Any novels you’d like to suggest?