I’ve just finished reading a most unusual novel. At times, I found Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” superb, at times exasperating, and at other times just plain peculiar. But mostly I found it intriguing.
Whatever its strengths, whatever its weaknesses, I never once considered putting it down. And now that I’ve finished reading the thing, I have to admit I’m still not sure I know what it meant, though I’m fairly certain it’s going to haunt me all the rest of my days.
Yes, I know, that last sentence strikes me as a little too mystical, too. And if I tell you that the book’s primary conceit is that trees have a sort of “intelligence,” that they talk to one another, talk to the fungi that live in the ground at their feet, the lichen that grow upon their bark, that, indeed, they talk to us, you’ll think I’ve finally gone off the deep end. But before you cart me off to the loony bin, let me remind you that science believes there is, in fact, some truth to this.
For instance, it’s been known for some time now that trees learn from one another, that when one tree in a forest suffers a particular type of insect invasion, its neighbors turn on specific defenses against that specific pest based upon what they have been told. In one of her poems, I can’t remember which one, Mary Oliver has a wonderful line about “the long, slow language of trees.”
Reading “The Overstory,” you will learn that there are trees that start dying the moment they sprout, and continue to slowly die for thousands of years to come (bristlecone pines), that there are groves of aspen that have all sprung from the roots of a single, mother tree, so that, in the aggregate, each of those groves ends up being among the largest organisms to ever inhabit the earth. There are even trees, as it happens, that exhibit a level of care for their offspring that borders upon affection.
But in addition to all the wondrous trees you will encounter in “The Overstory,” there is a cast of human characters, some of whom have to be among the most endearing oddballs to ever grace a work of literary fiction. Still, the tree motif dominates the book. And reading it, I think you will find yourself looking at the massive plants that stand sentinel around us so quietly, so unobtrusively, in an entirely new way. I know I did. And the thought that they might be, in some way, thinking about us, observing us … well, à la Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” it can give you the willies.
But in Powers’ telling, despite the fact our species has swept through their ranks like a plague, trees continue to think fondly, even fraternally, of us. Which appeals, I believe, to some ancient blood memory of ours, the part of us that once believed all trees had spirits, that the earth rested on the back of a great turtle, and that certain birds, when they disappeared at the end of summer, flew off to winter on the seas of the moon.
However repressed, I believe a trace of that primeval storytelling naturalist as yet abides within all of us. Certainly, if we will admit it, most of us have known trees at some point in our lives that seemed to carry more weight, a greater sense of personality, than their allotment of leaves, bark, roots and pith would warrant.
By the end of his days, Alzheimer’s had pretty much emptied my father’s mind of most of the pertinent facts of his life. Still, till the day he died, he remembered three things well: that he had been a doctor, that he loved my mother more than life itself and, interestingly, he liked to recall the day the tree people came and took down the great pin oak that stood in front of our house, the one he had looked out upon from his bedroom window pretty much every day of his adult life. He would tell the story of that day over and over again, his voice swelling with pride as he described the way the crane that lifted the oak from the ground had strained against its weight, as though the tree’s bulk, all the strength it had acquired over its long and fruitful life, meant something to him, maybe even said something about him.
I’m not at all sure I understood “The Overstory,” but thankfully, the Talbot County Free Library is more than just a pile of bricks and mortar, more, even, than just books, DVDs and eResources ... it is a community. It is a community of readers that come together to learn, share, and improve their minds as our Founding Fathers dreamt they would.
I read “The Overstory” in no small part because one of our patrons recommended it so enthusiastically. And now that patron has agreed to take on a task I am eminently unqualified for. At 1 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, in our Easton branch, Dr. Margot Miller will lead a discussion of “The Overstory.” I wouldn’t miss it for the world, and I hope to see you there, as well.