People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures ― bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful ― call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.
This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.
We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.
Civilized yards are all alike. Every wild yard is wild in its own way.
You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes...
Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.
A great truth comes over him: Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.
xenia — guest friendship — a command to take care of traveling strangers, to open your door to whoever is out there, because anyone passing by, far from home, might be God. Ovid tells the story of two immortals who came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees—an oak and a linden—huge and gracious and intertwined. What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer.
The older the word, the more likely it is to be both useful and true. In fact, he read once, back in Iowa, the night the woman came to trouble him into life, that the word tree and the word truth come from the same root.
No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees ― trees are invisible.
Plant-blind. Adam's curse. We only see things that look like us.
The books diverge and radiate, as fluid as finches on isolated islands. But they share a core so obvious it passes for given. Every one imagines that fear and anger, violence and desire, rage laced with the surprise capacity to forgive — character — is all that matters in the end. It’s a child’s creed, of course, just one small step up from the belief that the Creator of the Universe would care to dole out sentences like a judge in federal court. To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.
There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.
There’s a Chinese saying. ‘When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.’
The Chinese engineer smiles. “Good one.”
‘When is the next best time? Now.’
“Ah! Okay!” The smile turns real. Until today, he has never planted anything. But Now, that next best of times, is long, and rewrites everything.
Trees know when we are close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes of 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...
People have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.
Outsiders discovered how seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly.
Outsiders discovered that trees sense the presence of other nearby life. That a tree learns to save water. That trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks.
Here’s a little outsider information, and you can wait for it to be confirmed. A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.
It’s so simple. So obvious. Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it. So the authority of people is bankrupt.
We don't make reality. We evade it. By looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won't be able to pay.
We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.
Humans carry around legacy behaviors and biases, jerry-rigged holdovers from earlier stages of evolution that follow their own obsolete rules. What seem like erratic, irrational choices are, in fact, strategies created long ago for solving other kinds of problems. We’re all trapped in the bodies of sly, social-climbing opportunists shaped to survive the savanna by policing each other.
Phenomenal, to be such a small, weak, short-lived being on a planet with billions of years left to run.
Life will cook; the seas will rise. The planet’s lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough. Imminent, at the speed of people, is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees.
We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men... In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness. (the quote by John Muir)
Wilderness is gone. Forest has succumbed to chemically sustained silviculture. Four billion years of evolution, and that’s where the matter will end. Politically, practically, emotionally, intellectually: Humans are all that count, the final word. You cannot shut down human hunger. You cannot even slow it. Just holding steady costs more than the race can afford.
A country watches dumbstruck as New England’s priceless chestnuts melt away. The tree of the tanning industry, of railroad ties, train cars, telegraph poles, fuel, fences, houses, barns, fine desks, tables, pianos, crates, paper pulp, and endless free shade and food—the most harvested tree in the country—is vanishing.
What conveys a right, and why should humans, alone on all the planet, have them?
Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.
A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.
Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering.
Love for trees pours out of her—the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety and surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the micro-climate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intentions.
Trees are their kin, with hopes, fears, and social codes, and their goal as people has always been to charm and inveigle green things, to win them in symbolic marriage.
Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear.
A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, in words before words.
Trees used to talk to people all the time. Sane people used to hear them.
Berries may compete to be eaten more than animals compete for the berries.
Deforestation: a bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together. Twice as much carbon in the falling forests than in all the atmosphere. But that’s for another trial.
Human history was the story of increasingly disoriented hunger.
The confirmation of others: a sickness the entire race will die of.
Thick, clotted, craggy, but solid on the earth, and covered in other living things. Three hundred years growing, three hundred years holding, three hundred years dying. Oak.
Tagore said, Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.
A tree is a passage between earth and sky.
The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.
If you’re holding a sapling in your hand when the Messiah arrives, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.
I wouldn't need to be so very different for sun to seem to be about sun, for green to be about green, for joy and boredom and anguish and terror and death to all be themselves, beyond the need for any killing clarity, and then this― this, the growing rings of light and water and stone ― would take up all of me, and be all the words I need.
She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she’d get an ovation.
You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above. That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen.
But the argument he lays out before the jury is as clear as a row of Lombardy poplars. In silence, he walks his lifelong partner through old and central principles of jurisprudence, one syllable at a time. Stand your ground. The castle doctrine. Self-help. If you could save yourself, your wife, your child, or even a stranger by burning something down, the law allows you. If someone breaks into your home and starts destroying it, you may stop them however you need to. His few syllables are mangled and worthless. (...) He can find no way to say what so badly needs saying. Our home has been broken into. Our lives are being endangered. The law allows for all necessary force against unlawful and imminent harm.
I want to start a seed bank. There are half as many trees in the world as there were before we came down out of them.
Because of us?
One percent of the world forest, every decade. An area larger than Connecticut, every year. A third to a half of existing species may go extinct by the time I’m gone. Tens of thousands of trees we know nothing about. Species we’ve barely classified. Like burning down the library, art museum, pharmacy, and hall of records, all at once.
You want to start an ark.
I want to start an ark. (...) a seed can lie dormant for thousands of years.
“If we could see green, we’d see a thing that keeps getting more interesting the closer we get. If we could see what green was doing, we’d never be lonely or bored. If we could understand green, we’d learn how to grow all the food we need in layers three deep, on a third of the ground we need right now, with plants that protected one another from pests and stress. If we knew what green wanted, we wouldn’t have to choose between the Earth’s interests and ours. They’d be the same!”
One more click takes her to the next slide, a giant fluted trunk covered in red bark that ripples like muscle.
“To see green is to grasp the Earth’s intentions. So consider this one. This tree grows from Colombia to Costa Rica. As a sapling, it looks like a piece of braided hemp. But if it finds a hole in the canopy, the sapling shoots up into a giant stem with flaring buttresses.”
She turns to regard the image over her shoulder. It’s the bell of an enormous angel’s trumpet, plunged into the Earth. So many miracles, so much awful beauty. How can she leave so perfect a place?
“Did you know that every broadleaf tree on Earth has flowers? Many mature species flower at least once a year. But this tree, Tachigali versicolor, this one flowers only once. Now, suppose you could have sex only once in your entire life. . . .”
The room laughs now. She can’t hear, but she can smell their nerves. Her switchback trail through the woods is twisting again. They can’t tell where their guide is going.
“How can a creature survive, by putting everything into a one-night stand? Tachigali versicolor’s act is so quick and decisive that it boggles me. You see, within a year of its only flowering, it dies.”
She lifts her eyes. The room fills with wary smiles for the weirdness of this thing, nature. But her listeners can’t yet tie her rambling keynote to anything resembling home repair.
“It turns out that a tree can give away more than its food and medicines. The rain forest canopy is thick, and wind-borne seeds never land very far from their parent. Tachigali’s once-in-a-lifetime offspring germinate right away, in the shadow of giants who have the sun locked up. They’re doomed, unless an old tree falls. The dying mother opens a hole in the canopy, and its rotting trunk enriches the soil for new seedlings. Call it the ultimate parental sacrifice. The common name for Tachigali versicolor is the suicide tree.”
Photosynthesis: a feat of chemical engineering underpinning creation’s entire cathedral.
The best and easiest way to get a forest to return to any plot of cleared land is to do nothing —nothing at all, and do it for less time than you might think.
Left alone—and there’s the catch—left alone to the air and light and rain, each one might put on tens of thousands of pounds. Any one of his starts could grow for the next six hundred years and dwarf the largest factory chimney. It could play host to generations of voles that never go to ground and several dozen species of insects whose only desire is to strip their host bare. Could rain down ten million needles a year on its own lower branches, building up mats of soil that grow their own gardens high in the air.
Who does the tree-hugger really hug, when he hugs a tree?
Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation.
Something marvelous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal cabling link trees into gigantic, smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together, they form vast trading networks of goods, services, and information... There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer... In the great forests of the East, oaks and hickories synchronize their nut production to baffle the animals that feed on them. Word goes out, and the trees of a given species—whether they stand in sun or shade, wet or dry—bear heavily or not at all, together, as a community... Forests mend and shape themselves through subterranean synapses. And in shaping themselves, they shape, too, the tens of thousands of other, linked creatures that form it from within. Maybe it’s useful to think of forests as enormous spreading, branching, underground super-trees.
What’s wrong with How Trees Will Save the World? Trees won’t save the world?
I’m sure they will. After the world shrugs us off.
She sees and hears this by direct gathering, through her limbs. The fires will come, despite all efforts, the blight and windthrow and floods. Then the Earth will become another thing, and people will learn it all over again. The vaults of seed banks will be thrown open. Second growth will rush back in, supple, loud, and testing all possibilities. Webs of forest will swell with species shot through in shadow and dappled by new design. Each streak of color on the carpeted Earth will rebuild its pollinators. Fish will surge again up all the watersheds, stacking themselves as thick as cordwood through the rivers, thousands per mile. Once the real world ends.
The psyche's job is to keep us blissfully ignorant of who we are, what we think, and how we'll behave in any situation. We're all operating in a dense fog of mutual reinforcement. Our thoughts are shaped primarily by legacy hardware that evolved to assume that everyone else must be right. But even when the fog is pointed out, we're no better at navigating through it.
When removed from their kind, individual human beings can change in remarkable ways.
I'll sue for everything they're worth. But all the rights and privileges of fair practice are theirs. Humankind is a thug. The law is a goon.
Where the deer bound, where the trout rise, where your horse stops to slather a drink from icy water while the sun is warm on the back of your neck, where every breath you draw is exhilaration — that is where the Aspens grow...
A guy in a dirty suit jacket and shorts, his hair bound up in a bungee cord, cuts behind her on the sidewalk, talking out loud: voices or cell phone—choose your schizophrenia.
Plants are willful and crafty and after something, just like people.
Now they need only learn what life wants from humans. It's a big question, to be sure. Too big for people alone. But people aren't alone, and they never have been.
No mates exist for countless miles around, and a chestnut, though both male and female, will not serve itself. Yet still this tree has a secret tucked into the thin, living cylinder beneath its bark. Its cells obey an ancient formula: Keep still. Wait. Something in the lone survivor knows that even the ironclad law of Now can be outlasted. There’s work to do. Star-work, but earthbound all the same. Or as the nurse to the Union dead writes: Stand cool and composed before a million universes. As cool and composed as wood.
Her staff tells her not to, but she cites the numbers. Wasn’t Shaw right about how the mark of true intelligence is to be moved by statistics? Seventeen kinds of forest dieback, all made worse by warming. Thousands of square miles a year converted to development. Annual net loss of one hundred billion trees. Half the woody species on the planet, gone by this new century’s end.
CHRISTMAS EVE: There’s a fire blazing in the fireplace, food enough for five thousand, and a new TV as big as Wyoming tuned to a football game no one cares about.
Even as an infant, he hated being held. Every hug is a small, soft jail.
Too many species to count. Reefs bleach and wetlands dry. Things are going lost that have not yet been found. Kinds of life vanish a thousand times faster than the baseline extinction rate. Forest larger than most countries turns to farmland. Look at the life around you; now delete half of what you see.
Humankind is deeply ill. The species won't last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.
Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day. First there is nothing. Two hours are lost to lava and meteors. Life doesn’t show up until three or four a.m. Even then, it’s just the barest self-copying bits and pieces. From dawn to late morning—a million million years of branching—nothing more exists than lean and simple cells. Then there is everything. Something wild happens, not long after noon. One kind of simple cell enslaves a couple of others. Nuclei get membranes. Cells evolve organelles. What was once a solo campsite grows into a town. The day is two-thirds done when animals and plants part ways. And still life is only single cells. Dusk falls before compound life takes hold. Every large living thing is a latecomer, showing up after dark. Nine p.m. brings jellyfish and worms. Later that hour comes the breakout—backbones, cartilage, an explosion of body forms. From one instant to the next, countless new stems and twigs in the spreading crown burst open and run.
Plants make it up on land just before ten. Then insects, who instantly take to the air. Moments later, tetrapods crawl up from the tidal muck, carrying around on their skin and in their guts whole worlds of earlier creatures. By eleven, dinosaurs have shot their bolt, leaving the mammals and birds in charge for an hour. Somewhere in that last sixty minutes, high up in the phylogenetic canopy, life grows aware. Creatures start to speculate. Animals start teaching their children about the past and the future. Animals learn to hold rituals. Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight. The first cave paintings appear three seconds later. And in a thousandth of a click of the second hand, life solves the mystery of DNA and starts to map the tree of life itself. By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.
Source: “The Overstory” (2018) by Richard Powers