After•Word: “Born Again”
Richard Powers’ The Overstory
“Let me sing to you about how people turn into other things.” (Ovid) quoted in The Overstory
Years ago I placed my brother’s ashes in a shallow depression that I had dug near a granite fern and moss-covered boulder. The brook flowed just a few feet away and at the last minute I scattered some filaments over the shallow waters, returning them to the sea. A week later I planted a hazelnut tree nearby. A fossilized spiral ammonite marks my brother’s grave.
Thanks to the underground highway created out of millions of tree/plant roots, the extensive net of fungal hyphae, and this communal system’s miraculous ability to exchange nutrients, my brother lives on as part of this forest. The gracefully spreading hazel and all the other trees (spruce, maple, balsam, hemlock, ash) scattered around this hallowed woodland grove have been nourished by the bones of one I loved.
Yet only recently have I been possessed by revelation.
I want to be buried under one of these trees so I can become one, too. I spent my childhood living in a tree, was sheltered, fed, and loved by them as a young forlorn mother, and chose them as my closest companions (except for dogs and bears) when I built my small camp in the woods, and later my log cabin. By mid-life the deep intimacy between us had flowered into articulation. What was happening to the trees was happening to me. Trees paved the road to eco-feminism.
I long to become a tree whose context is community, whose focus is on the whole, who lives on in a sacred form that is 400 million years strong.
Everything about trees is about living in relationship to other beings. Trees shelter, feed, protect, create life out of death, and ask for nothing in return. Well, not exactly nothing. Of course, I am grateful to trees for each breath I take, but mostly I love them because they exist. And over the course of my life trees have taught me that they love to be loved. A life without trees is not one I would choose to live.
When I first began reading The Overstory I felt an instant visceral connection to the writing because I had never come across a novel that linked trees to humans the way this one did, placing the brief span of the human species against the 400-million-year history of trees. The Overstory is a kind of meta-narrative of old-growth forests, in all their wonder and diversity. Several overlapping and interlocking human understories unfold against this backdrop; trees are the foreground for others. Some of the characters of The Overstory dedicate their lives to the seemingly impossible job of saving trees from extinction.
Patricia Westerford is a scientist whose love for trees has directed her entire professional life. When Patricia first posits that the bio-chemical behavior of trees makes sense only when we see them as complex living organisms—that the entire forest is a living organism that cooperates above and below ground—other scientists ridicule her. She withdraws from public attention; eventually her research is vindicated. Patricia also makes a decision to gather the seeds of trees to store in a protected environment in order to safeguard them for the future. Her supportive husband poses a question Patricia cannot answer: Who will be around to plant those seeds?
Olivia has no life purpose until she is electrocuted and when she comes back from the dead she begins to hear voices, and more importantly, begins to listen to them. The trees need our help; humans need help. As a fierce tree advocate, “Maidenhair” goes to live in a redwood, generating love and devotion from her four compatriots, love that sustains them after her horrific death. The book demonstrates that all life is interdependent and that what we do to the trees we are doing to ourselves. The characters begin to understand that in order to reverse the trajectory that we are on, humans must begin to see trees as sentient beings inextricably tied to us.
Almost daily I touch sturdy tree trunks that have provided me with support and deep abiding joy, comfort during times of distress. Sometimes during the warmer months I listen to tree trunks making an almost imperceptible gurgling sound. I think of all the rootlets—luminescent hyphae interpenetrating, nourishing, sending impulses, singing under ground. The compounds that trees breathe out at night lower my stress level. My heart beats more slowly in response, in resonance with this night rhythm. I experience unimaginable aching beauty when trees are leafing out, birthing spiky top knots, coming into bloom while scenting the air with a perfume so sweet that it transports me into another realm. I lean into blessed tree shade during intolerable heat. Trees speak in tongues that I can feel or sense and sometimes utter a word or two in my own language. Is it any surprise that I am perpetually flooded with awe and wonder when it comes to trees?
Tree conversation never ceases above or below. Just now because it is winter the tree’s sap, its sugary/mineral rich blood, barely trickles, though it still acts as nature’s antifreeze. The living tissue just below the bark, precious cambium, is lined with water so pure it doesn’t crystallize. Trees lean into the dark grateful to rest quietly as frost or snow covers bare branches or bends evergreen boughs to the ground. In the spring’s warming sun, sap chants as it rises, flowing upward (defying gravity in the process) to the highest branches, the most delicate twigs, the sharpest tips of needles, causing the latter to bristle with new green growth. Flowers and leaves appear on deciduous trees. Pale yellow, orange, or dusky brown pollen thickens the air with scent and purpose.
With adequate water trees will flourish all summer long, photosynthesizing—producing bountiful amounts of oxygen as they breathe in poisonous carbon dioxide. They transpire, offering clouds of steam, releasing precious moisture, compounds, and minerals into the air until autumn, when their lifeblood begins its annual descent. Journeying back to their Source, withering leaves and needles begin to drift earthward (some needles, others scatter in early spring). Cascading leaves flutter to the ground, peppering the precious earth with the stuff of dying, twigs, uneaten fruits, seeds, and nuts, producing a layer of detritus soon to become nourishment for next year’s growth.
Seeds take root almost invisibly, seeking Earth’s warmth, minerals and other nutrients and most important—relationships with others; kinship begins beneath the surface of the soil.
Ah, to become a tree…
I will sleep and dream away the winter, bow respectfully as I wince in raging winds. Early spring brings my willow catkins into flower: blossoms that feed my much beloved and starving black bears. Deer and moose nibble my first twigs and buds. In the heat of the late spring sun I become tumescent, swelling buds that will produce flowers of every conceivable shape and color, those complex structures that will eventually bear fruit or seeds. Translucent lime-green leaves appear and deepen into emerald. My scent is so sweet that bees seek me out and I thrive under their buzz and hum. As summer begins, my leaves will shower the earth in luminous dappled light shielding tender wildflowers from a sun too bright, too fierce. With the first clap of thunder I turn my thirsty leaves and stretch out my needles towards the life-bringing rains. Birds who sought out the shelter of my branches to bear their young feed their hungry progeny. Woodpeckers hammer holes in some of my trunks for insects, creating new homes for others in the process. Flying squirrels and owls seek my protection from summer’s harsh brightness, the kind that outlasts the night. Wild bees burrow under my bark or under my feet. Myriad insects like cicadas find homes in my canopies and sing cacophonous songs of praise at dusk. Wailing winds cease as I listen to myriad voices; the forest speaks.
For me “becoming tree” means that something of who I am lives on, a “not I” who continues her work: feeding animals and birds, planting and nurturing more trees and plants—those same creatures and plants (and hopefully others) that have sustained me throughout my life.
As long as trees continue to exist they will teach us that in every end there is a new beginning.