When I was in first grade, I made a stapled-together picture book about the pear tree in our yard called “My Friend the Tree.” I drew her in each of the four seasons with me, a smiling face attached to legs, right alongside her. I sensed that before I knew how to talk about it this tree knew things: she had a wise life force sucking and exhaling something true into our cookie-cutter suburb air. In those early elementary school days, I would spend long hours high up in the branches, reading my “Dr. Doolittle” chapter book out loud, because something in me thought the tree wanted to hear the story too.
I hadn’t thought about her in a long time — my tree friend — until reading “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. It is a book that makes me want to remember what I had forgotten: the wordless understanding I had about trees and how as a child I listened to them, knowing they were alive and communicating.
“The Overstory,” first published in 2018, is a deeply-affecting, perception-altering novel about trees and the suffering humans who learn to listen to their ancient, silent messages. Trees, we learn while reading, are social beings, part of vast, interconnected communities. One of the main characters is a field scientist named Patricia Westerford who discovers that trees communicate with one another through “countless, thousands of miles of living fungal threads. … Trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests. … There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest.”
The characters’ stories in the novel are interwoven like life in a forest. When we are introduced to each character, we are also introduced to the trees in their landscapes. These trees tug at them, silently and patiently. This tug turns many of the characters into eco-activists whom we follow to the 1990’s Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest — a place where a Douglas fir is “so tall, so near the upper limits imposed by gravity, that it takes a day and a half for him to list water from his roots to the highest of his sixty-five million needles. And every branch smells of deliverance.”
In the novel, Patricia Westerford writes a book based on her findings called “The Secret Forest.” The other characters encounter this book and are changed by it. “Trees know when we’re close by,” reads a page. “The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes 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. … Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear.”
I think that sometimes, if we are present and open, these fleeting and miraculous frequencies make their way to us. I remember the leggy, twisting Monterey cypress outside my freshman dorm hall in San Diego, California. There were many nights that I escaped my dorm room and cried under its peely branches to the dark ocean, the tiny boat lights blurry in my watery eyes. This cypress, with her wrinkled bark and stretching limbs that never threatened, knew how to comfort. Something wiser than you will ever comprehend surrounds you, the tree said, in silence, to her oblivious freshman. The rumble of roots underneath you is telling a story older than words, a worship beyond music.
Now there is an oak I love in Jackson Park, near where I live in Chicago. A few weeks ago I was out for a run, feeling heartbroken, mindlessly running toward something. I didn’t know what that something was until I saw the writhing, dancing branches. I touched her cold, rocky bark and cried. It’s like all the pain of Chicago rests in her trunk, too, and she feels it underground in her roots; tells the passersby “I offer you this: what is true is right in front of you. Lean into me. I will show you.” With one hand pressing into my chest I felt my heartbeat, and with the other gripping the bark I drew strength from a being more ancient than my religion.
“The Overstory,” Nathaniel Rich writes in The Atlantic, embraces a “dark optimism” about the fate of humanity. While we are awakened to the living-breathing reality of trees as we read, we are at the same time witnesses to the mindless capitalist destruction of forests for profits, millennia of growth and truth torn down in a decade.
Yet one of the gifts of “The Overstory” is that it decenters human beings and centers trees and the nonhuman world. Perhaps this decentering will play with and challenge our imaginations in a lifesaving way, helping us rethink what it means to live justly in a more-than-human world.
Maybe to live into the fullness of who we are means to see ourselves entwined and tiny; not masters over the earth but neighbors, part of the vast, ancient network that is forever older than us and will always outlive us. For the 1,000-year-old trees, our lives are a day. So what would be more meaningful than to live in ethical relation with all that is around us, starting with our own immediate environments and neighbors, human and nonhuman?
At the beginning of the novel, one of the characters leans against a pine tree and messages rain down around her: “That’s the problem with people, their root problem. Life runs right alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count. A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.
“The pine she leans against says ‘Listen. There is something you need to hear.’”
What trees have made an impact in your life? Take a moment to contemplate and revel in your remembrance of them. Seek to notice and respect the trees, plants and ecosystems you encounter each day. Begin to think about how you — we — might live in more ethical relation to trees, forests and all living beings.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cassidy Klein is an essayist, journalist and creative writer based in Chicago, Illinois. She grew up in Denver, Colorado, and attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California, to study journalism and philosophy. After college Cassidy moved to Washington, D.C. for a fellowship with Sojourners Magazine, where she worked as an editorial assistant. Now in Chicago, she lives at The Fireplace, a community of artists, activists and Catholic sisters. She is a freelance writer, editor and assistant with adults with intellectual disabilities at L’Arche Chicago. Find more of her work at cassidyrklein.weebly.com.
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