I finished reading Richard Power’s The Overstory and was stunned when I put it down. It is a long novel, but not a single word is superfluous or misplaced. It is essentially about trees and their place on our planet and subsequently our place in relationship to them. The book itself is written as organically as a growing organism, as seed by seed, sapling by sapling is planted in our minds and hearts, by a large diversity of human characters who interact with trees in their branching and sometimes intersecting lives. The evolution of our human existence becomes inseparable from those trees and forests that Powers so eloquently describes. His devotion to our education is based on sound science but is taught to us through sheer poetry. It resonates as only Truth and Beauty can and continues long after I closed the book. I cannot wait to read it again, though like any book of wisdom, I need some time to integrate what I have been touched by so deeply.
Given the arc of both still surviving long-lived trees today and their entire species’ impact on our own appearance on this planet, the novel’s view of human beings is given a tender but painfully realistic treatment. Our ignorance is evident historically and the impending crisis of willful denial is neither sugar coated nor used to punish us for our participation in the slaughter of our planet and vital interconnections with all living things. Powers gathers the latest research about the adaptability, intelligence and communication systems that trees use in an entire ecosystem. It is a delightful and amazing experience to discover that what we may have intuited while walking in the depths of the woods, has been confirmed to be true. We are being shaped by trees as much as we have historically endeavored to shape them solely to our own purposes.
I am not able to walk in the woods of my old home. But I can still close my eyes and summon sitting in the silence of the sixty acres we once stewarded: the smells, the sounds of birds and stream and rustle of small creatures, and the uplifting sense of awe of life being lived through a New York Catskill mountain forest. It was filled with decay and renewal at every turn. Further down the same road from my adult home, I remember as a child, spending hours next to a rotten log, fascinated by the tiny new sprouting “trees” of moss, one-inch lakes filled with tiny wriggling creatures, and the discovery of an orange salamander like a full-sized dragon stilling under my gaze. This is embedded as part of my every breath, my gift of being a planetary citizen.
Translating wisdom into action is difficult for humanity. We are terrible at embracing the many changes we have wrought, at guiding them with regard to our future legacy. Hope is in our preparing the soil for the next generations. It seems to me that irrepressible Life will be lived, whether or not we insist on being the center of it all- decay and renewal at every turn.