In a turn-of-the-millennium dialogue the two of us did that was published in Conjunctions:34, American Fiction: States of the Art, Rick memorably stated that “Art is a way of saying what it means to be alive, and the most salient feature of existence is the unthinkable odds against it. For every way that there is of being here, there are an infinity of ways of not being here.” It was a worldview embraced once more in his latest novel. One of those infinite ways of not being here can be assured, quite simply, by failing to preserve our complex, remarkably sentient forests.
BRADFORD MORROW: You and I have long shared a deep connection with nature in our work and our lives. While nature has had an impact, a role to play, in all of your novels—from the rain-muddied fields in the Rhineland Province of Prussia, where three Westerwald farmers walk in Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, to the gorgeous evocation of the sandhill crane migration along Nebraska’s Platte River in The Echo Maker—nature has never been so central, truly the focal point, as it is in your new book, The Overstory. What is at stake here is the very life of the planet itself and its mysteriously intelligent forests that are threatened on all sides by human depredations, ignorance, and indifference. Could you tell me how you came to be interested in the secret lives of trees and how The Overstory came into being?
RICHARD POWERS: I was living in Palo Alto and teaching at Stanford. I know you are a great lover of the Rockies’ Front Range, and you’ve been devoted to Upstate New York and New England for many years, but have you ever spent time in California’s Central Peninsula? It’s hard not to see the place as a metaphor for human schizophrenia, crammed into a causeway fifty miles long and a few miles wide. Silicon Valley, the thing that Stanford helped to spawn, is hemmed in on one side by San Francisco Bay and on the other by the Santa Cruz Mountains, land that Wallace Stegner, among many others, helped to set aside in perpetuity.
In the narrow, filled-in strip in between are the headquarters of an absurd number of tech corporations, busy inventing all kinds of tomorrows: Google, Apple, Intel, HP, eBay, Facebook, Netflix, Electronic Arts, Yahoo, Tesla, Adobe, Oracle, Cisco—you name it. It’s an intensely go-go culture, filled with people who pride themselves on knowing no limits, many of whom are determined to live forever, or at least long enough to see the Singularity. Because of the insane amount of money flowing through the place and the fact that there is no more land to expand into, fixer-uppers and teardowns in Palo Alto sometimes sell for north of two million dollars. It’s sci-fi at its most utopian.
Just to the west, though, are those mountains, covered in second- growth redwoods. These were my getaway and my antidote to the future, and I would head up whenever I could to walk the hundreds of miles of trails that run through the open space preserves. It’s hard not to have your brain rearranged by a redwood, even a second-growth redwood. You don’t even have to have much of a love for “nature.” For anyone who knows redwoods only from photos or film—you have no idea. Walking under redwoods, as Donald Culross Peattie says, is “like stepping into a cloister, one infinitely more spacious and lofty than any raised by man.”
These mountains had long ago been shaved clean, and the primeval redwoods—some of which germinated before Jesus—were all cut down to build and rebuild San Francisco and its surrounding towns. But a redwood grows quickly, and what it can do in a hundred years is also enough to boggle the mind. It’s easy to forget that most of the monsters in the Santa Cruz Mountains are infants. I’d walk underneath this cloister, with its intoxicating smells, thinking: If there had been no redwood forests up here, there would be no Silicon Valley down there. Every so often, I’d come across an individual tree that, by accident of history, had never been cut. Think blue whale among dolphins. Only then did I realize what I wasn’t seeing and grasp the magnitude of what had been lost.
As I say, it doesn’t take much of a fine-tuned soul to be humbled by a single living thing wider than a house, taller than a football field is long, and older than Christianity. But walking under those trees changed me for coming back down. And I soon noticed that the campus I came back down into—thanks to a combination of deep robber baron pockets and one of the truly sublime climates on earth—was itself a spectacular arboretum. Armed with a guidebook, I began making my way through the exotic specimens of trees gathered from all over the globe. They began to open to me. Each started to reveal some odd quirk or treasure—spines on their trunks, incense smells, or two radically different kinds of leaves on the same individual. The more I read and the more I looked, the more remarkable these creatures seemed to me. They were architects and biochemists, trying out every conceivable combination of skills and techniques in their repertoire of survival.
Stanford didn’t work out for me. When we parted ways, I returned for a while to the Midwest. But because of what had happened to me in California, the familiar trees of my boyhood had all changed utterly in my absence. Who knew that a sycamore could grow to twenty feet around and play host to hundreds of invertebrates, many of them unique to that tree? Who knew that the twigs of a sassafras smelled like root beer and stayed green all winter? Who knew that you could make salads from the baby leaves of a linden or brew tea from their surfboard bracts? I’d lived for half a century and more without even noticing the surfboards!
Well, it turns out a guy is never too old to learn. And I’ve been eagerly, hungrily learning, ever since, first in Montana, and now in the Smokies.
MORROW: I do know that preadamite red wood terrain, but only from a time well before the arrival of all those tech companies and their sprawling campuses, back when I was a kid. My stir-crazy, nature-loving parents often set out with me and my sister on long road trips to visit every western natural marvel they could think of. We went to Maroon Bells and Arches, Bryce and Zion, Canyonlands and Monument Valley and Yellowstone, the Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon and twice out to the Pacific, where they later resettled for a time in Santa Maria, California. On one of these excursions we visited Yosemite and, of course, the great Wawona Tree in the Mariposa Grove, a giant sequoia that had a tunnel cut out of its base large enough for cars to pass through. Besides the humbling experience of feeling so physically small among these benign, towering ancients, I remember the scent of their needles aloft and underfoot. Utterly intoxicating, the smell of antiquity still evergreen. When reading The Overstory, I found it impossible not to be reminded of the particular smells and sounds of the forests of my youth. I’m pretty sure many other readers of the book will have similar reactions and memories of different forests, different trees.
As The Overstory moves along through its multiple narratives of very different people, a number of its characters ultimately converge in the Pacific Northwest. It is here that a crucial dynamic evolves that centers on the plight of some of the oldest trees on earth being felled, clear-cut for corporate profit. Among other things, you give us a story about preservationists and activists, people who are willing to risk their lives in an attempt to save some of our oldest forests from extinction. I’m curious where your research took you when you were working on this critical part of the book. Was your band of protesters based on any particular activist group or groups?
POWERS: By the time I made it to the Mariposa Grove, Wawona was lying dead on the ground. But even sideways, its great radial cylinder of collapsed trunk still reached way above my head. A thing estimated to be about as old as Socrates lasted roughly one human lifetime after humans decided to cut a tunnel through it. Perhaps it’s my overactive imagination, but there may be some metaphor in that! At least the Park Service decided to leave the mighty tree lying where it fell. As one of the characters in my book helps to discover, there may be orders of magnitude more life in a dead tree than there is in a living one.
The Overstory does culminate in the Timber Wars fought in the Pacific Northwest throughout the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century. For various reasons I have kept my locations nonspecific and fictional, but they represent composites of sites in Northern California and Southern Oregon where these battles were fought. I worked from accounts of several activist groups, from mainstream outfits like the Sierra Club to more radical endeavors like Earth First! and, ultimately, the Earth Liberation Front, which, it has been said, made Earth First! (a group that seemed almost unhinged to many Americans in the middle of the political spectrum at the time) look like the Sierra Club.
But the book also tries to put these late-day preservation fights in the broader context of older American environmentalism. There were at least four great forests in this country that were each, in their day, considered to be inexhaustible: the northern hardwood and white pine forests of the Northeast, the pine and spruce-fir forests of the Upper Midwest, the cove hardwood and other mixed chestnut and oak forests of the Southern Appalachians coupled with the expanses of longleaf pine in the Deep South, and, of course, the teeming riches of the Northwest, home to many of the largest species of trees on earth. All these forests have now been mostly cut over. It utterly stunned me to read, while researching the book, that only two to five percent of original old-growth American forest remains. And if activism hadn’t galvanized ordinary people at the end of the twentieth century, after three of the four great forests had already been decimated, that number would be even lower.
It’s tough to write literary fiction, with its love of moral complexity and ambiguity, that makes activists sympathetic. Something in us resists people who are too certain or fight too stridently for a thing. But many ordinary people who wouldn’t dare impose their own political will on others have come to realize that you shouldn’t throw away an infinitely valuable gift. That’s a story worth telling. And once you begin to see trees—really see them as creatures with agency and intention and the capacity to communicate—they become characters in their own right. My goal, in The Overstory, was to treat trees as persons in their own dramatic narrative.
MORROW: Some of our greatest novelists, from Thomas Hardy to Willa Cather and beyond, have so deeply invested their natural landscapes with the power of personality that nature becomes an active, even interactive, character in their work. Certainly, the trees in your novel similarly achieve an undeniable kind of selfhood, a soulful, communicative, and vital presence. They are families. Some of them are individuals with complicated lives.
I’m thinking particularly of the great Mimas tree, in whose upper reaches two of your characters, Olivia and Nick, aka Maidenhair and Watchman, take up residence for well over a year in order to discourage loggers from toppling it. Mimas “runs straight up like a chimney butte and neglects to stop. From underneath, it could be Yggdrasil, the World Tree, with its roots in the underworld and crown in the world above.” Their mission is brave if not brazen, something of a suicide pact, in that if Mimas falls victim to the woodcutters’ chain saws, they as comrades fall too. There are scenes in which Mimas and its courageous—I want to say his or her—companions survive battering storms, threats from humans and the elements alike. During all these moments I found myself thinking of the great tree as a living, breathing elder, a generous host, and something of a sage in this trinity of beings. Even as Maidenhair and Watchman are there as protesters hoping to protect Mimas, the tree is protective—one could say paternal and maternal—toward these humans as well as other creatures who live in its branches, from salamanders to flying squirrels.
So, yes, Hardy, Cather, even J. R. R. Tolkien and others, have their ways of approaching nature as a character. What is your trajectory here, philosophically, aesthetically, along other avenues, of making this come to life for you?
POWERS: Since redwoods bear both male and female cones on the same tree (though on different branches), I guess the correct pronoun for Mimas—who is also one of my favorite characters in the book— would be “he and she”! And Mimas is just one of several individual trees who play critical roles in the story. Another is the Hoel Chestnut, a tree that a family of Iowa farmers photographs over the course of a century, almost as if they were taking an ongoing portrait of one of their more eccentric uncles. The Hoel Chestnut starts the entire novel in motion, only to return some five hundred pages later in the guise of an artifact that helps to catalyze the book’s finale. Then there is the banyan the size of a small village that saves Doug Pavlicek’s life. The trees planted for each of the Appich children—elm, ash, oak, and maple—through an eerie kind of metempsychosis, color each child’s life.
Beyond the starring roles given to individual trees, there are supporting roles given to specific stands, groves, and forests. I’m thinking, for example, of the experimental forest in the Cascades where Patricia Westerford makes her mature discoveries, or the clump of ponderosa pines whose execution by clandestine public chain saw radicalizes Mimi Ma. These groups of trees have their own distinct personalities and act as agents upon the human characters. Groups of trees also play frequent cameo roles, like the invisible town in Montana that Douglas stumbles on, now devoid of all signs of human habitation except for the cottonwoods, planted to line the streets that have now vanished.
The choice to give these trees central roles in the plot and the cast of the novel is both elemental and elementary. At the core of the book (in the heartwood, if you will) is a rejection of human exceptionalism—the idea that we are the only things on earth with agency, purpose, memory, flexible response to change, or community. Research has shown in countless marvelous ways that trees have all of these. Tree consciousness—which we’ll need to recover in order to come back home to this planet and stop treating it like a bus station bathroom—means understanding that trees, both singly and collectively, are central characters in our own stories.
Related to this insight is the research of Patricia Westerford into the intensely collective nature of trees. Just as in the standard novel of psychological revelation that often plays social and group will against the individual, so, Westerford discovers, there is always a society of trees, sustaining and regulating the lives of its single stems:
Tolkien, by the way, was indeed an inspiration in some of this. His Ents must surely be among his most spectacular creations. Slow to anger, slow to act. But once they get going, you want them on your side.
It will take years for the picture to emerge. There will be findings, unbelievable truths confirmed by a spreading worldwide web of researchers in Canada, Europe, Asia, all happily swapping data through faster and better channels. Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t red in tooth and claw, after all. For one, those species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons. But if trees share their storehouses, then every drop of red must float on a sea of green.
MORROW: How true!
Speaking of Patricia Westerford, I find her to be one of the most compelling human characters in the novel. And I say this even as I admit to feeling full of admiration and even affection for many of your activists, some of whom pay dearly for what they believe in, especially when “the luxury of nonviolence is over.” As for Dr. Westerford, she is a visionary of sorts, a researcher whose groundbreaking early work on the communal behavior of trees was debunked by experts who later were themselves proven to be wrong. She has an exceptional capacity to empathize with trees, live almost exclusively among them, develop strategies for understanding them in ways that most people can hardly imagine. There’s a bit of Jane Goodall in Patricia Westerford, but rather than studying chimpanzees, she’s an unusually insightful observer and, in her way, guardian of forests. Could you talk a little about her? At times, I sensed that some of your own deepest-held beliefs about trees found their way into the thoughts and words of Patricia Westerford.
POWERS: Many of the characters in this book became very dear to me in the act of writing, and I miss spending my days with them, now that creation is over. I really enjoyed the high-pitched, high-strung Dorothy Cazaly, for instance, who surprises even herself with her late-life rise to responsibility. And I felt tenderness toward the blundering Doug Pavlicek and his eternal cluelessness. If there is a “me” character, it’s probably the Midwestern, introverted, obsessive artist, Nick Hoel. But Patricia is beyond a doubt the moral center of the novel, the grounded (rooted?) visionary who sees the farthest into and knows the most about the superhuman entities we share the globe with. And, yes, she becomes the most robust and informed spokesperson for all the deepest truths about trees that I was able to learn and love.
It’s funny. Patricia isn’t especially complicated, as far as literary characters go. She doesn’t suffer from any particular moral ambiguity. While she may make one or two questionable life decisions, her compass is sound, steady, and true. That’s usually the formula for low dramatic interest. But as Philip Roth brilliantly put it in The Human Stain, we really love someone when we see them being game in the face of the worst. More than most people, Patricia sees the worst about what has happened and will continue to happen to our only available home. And yet she chooses to remain game.
It’s funny that you mention Goodall, because her writing was a big inspiration to me while I was working on the book. I thought about her a lot as a person too, struck by that combination of expansive soul yet fierce independence of thought. Isn’t it funny that so many of the infinitely patient, great, revolutionary field primatologists—Goodall, Dian Fossey, Shirley Strum—are women, in a male dominated field? It may be too glib a generalization, but if men are sometimes overly inclined to make theories, women are often more capable of just looking. (It occurs to me that the detective-explorer who is the moral center of your own most recent book, the beautiful Prague Sonata, is also a woman!)
Of course, Patricia is a fictional composite, and I don’t mean to invoke anyone recognizable in the style of a roman à clef, but it’s fair to say she derives from real-life women, both in her character and in her work. Her mature discoveries owe more than a little to the tremendously exciting research of Suzanne Simard into the intricate communicative and resource-sharing networks in a forest, what Simard calls the Wood Wide Web. At the same time, Patricia’s career as a patient outsider and her temperament as a controversial yet strong-willed proclaimer of deep tree truths are based in part on the remarkable Diana Beresford-Kroeger, whose books have been a call to humanity to treat trees with the awe due to immensely resourceful creatures that we still know so little about.
MORROW: Before I received a copy of The Overstory late last year, I found myself traveling around the country on book tour for The Prague Sonata and one subject that came up over and over again besides music and musicology was, no exaggeration, the strangeness of the fall colors. Whether in the Hudson Valley or Iowa, in Colorado or Washington State, up in New Hampshire or over in Illinois, many people I encountered expressed concern about how last summer’s green leaves had abruptly turned brown without pausing for the bright crimsons and yellows, the kaleidoscopic spectrum deciduous trees display as winter approaches. A van driver transporting me from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City was certain that acid rain was the culprit. A friend in Denver blamed it on drought. Many believed it was because of climate change while a fellow writer in New England said he’d observed the difference too, but had no theory. He just lamented the spectacle of leaves browning, as if lightly singed, on their branches and dropping.
In Peter Wohlleben’s recent book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, he discusses how trees break down chlorophyll in part to make colors that send a warning to “aphids and other insects … seeking shelter in cracks in the bark, where they will be protected from low temperatures. Healthy trees advertise their readiness to defend themselves in the coming spring by displaying brightly colored fall leaves.” I wonder what you think about his theory and if you happened to notice this brown-leaf phenomenon where you live and what your thoughts are about it. A transient event? A coincidence of local instances where I happened to be traveling?
POWERS: For whatever the anecdote is worth, recent fall colors have been drab here in the Smokies as well. Fall foliage color is a subtractive process. When chlorophyll (a green pigment) is removed from the leaf, it reveals the other pigments that have been left behind: the yellow xanthophylls, the orange carotenoids, and the red and purple anthocyanins. (Trees make thousands of compounds whose functions we are only beginning to understand.) In The Overstory, Mimi Ma is stunned to discover that the next year’s leaf buds are already present and visible on broadleaf trees, even in the previous year’s growing season. I’m similarly moved to think that fall’s colors are already there in the leaf, even in the spring, but masked to us until the curtain is drawn back and the show revealed.
Like you, I was struck by Wohlleben’s assertion that autumn foliage color might be adaptive. I haven’t seen a lot of discussion of that elsewhere, so I don’t know how widely embraced by the field the idea is. (Of course, Patricia Westerford and Diana Beresford-Kroeger would be the first to tell you, professional consensus isn’t the same thing as truth!) Widespread behaviors and resilient features of life do tend to embody adaptive advantage. Think about the way that smaller American beeches tend to keep their bronze leaves all winter, a phenomenon known as marcescence. There may be many reasons for this, but for one, the dead leaves probably discourage overgrazing on the tender leaf buds by deer and others.
One thing is sure: fall color is a function of temperature and rainfall, so large, persistent changes in brightness or browning over the years would serve to measure large, persistent changes in weather. But if we’re looking for barometers into profound upheaval of the planet’s climate systems, there are more dramatic and inarguable ones. Climate change has battered the health of world forests beyond all reasonable doubt.
One particularly devastating example has been the massive flourishing of fatal insect pests that were once kept in check by cold weather but now thrive in the much warmer winters. The hemlock woolly adelgid has been ravishing hemlock forests all throughout the East. In the West, hot, dry summers and mild winters have caused the populations of mountain pine beetle to explode. This creature has an important role to play in western forest ecologies, recycling old, decayed trees and promoting the growth of younger replacements. But now, thrown out of balance by rapid, man-made changes to the seasons, these beetles are annihilating huge expanses of pine from Canada to Mexico. Lodgepole, limber, whitebark, Scotch, jack, ponderosa: they’re all succumbing to what is probably the largest insect blight we’ve ever witnessed in North America. Millions of acres of pines in your beloved Rocky Mountain National Park are gone. The number of destroyed acres has fallen in recent years, but mostly because there are relatively few pines left to feed on.
MORROW: Five or so years ago, when I went out to Steamboat Springs to visit the graves of my aunt and uncle, who are buried on their old ranch near Rabbit Ears Pass, I saw firsthand the densely forested mountainsides I’d known since childhood, just devastated by this blight. The multicolored greens of the different conifers I took for granted when I stayed on the ranch during so many youthful summers were reduced to huge swaths of ashen brown. The sight was, in a word, horrifying.
Could you tell me what your thoughts are about the future of our forests as well as the future of viable activism on behalf of their preservation? For instance, Greenpeace has a program dedicated to the goal of zero deforestation in the near future even as the current administration is moving to relax restrictions that protect various wilderness lands.
POWERS: We’re living at a grim moment, and a terrifying one. In a single year, the current administration, spearheaded by the secretary of the Interior and the director of the EPA (institutions that are built to be protective and preservationist), has rolled back, rescinded, or done away with protections that took half a century of enormous effort and enlightened vision to put in place. Even as the costs of the degradation of natural capital multiply, Trumpism speeds up the onslaught.
This rush for “deregulation” isn’t, to my mind, primarily motivated by economics. (I was fascinated to learn, for instance, that the renewable monetary value of various goods and services that can be obtained from an old-growth forest, year after year, greatly outweighs the value of the timber produced by logging, which can only be done on the interval of many decades.) The real motive behind the push to gut ecosystems seems to be primarily ideological. The people now in power want to dominate and hurt the nonhuman world, to show it who is boss. Just as the “stern father” of Trumpism depends on a creed of white supremacy and American exceptionalism, so does it harbor a broader creed of human supremacy that its brand of greatness needs to reassert.
Before venturing into the possibility of future preservation, let me tell one story about preservation from an earlier, and to my mind much greater, America. Writing The Overstory changed my life in many ways, quite literally altering its trajectory. I came to the Smoky Mountains to see the huge variety of trees—more species than there are in all Europe—and I ended up staying. I’ve lived here now for the better part of two years.
Most of the Smokies were cut over, but about a quarter of the park is old growth. The reforested areas are themselves heart-stoppingly beautiful, but the moment you walk up into the original forest, it spins your head. You can see how teeming the whole country must have been, before its conversion to short-term resources. And all that could have disappeared too and been “developed,” if it weren’t for the efforts of a few people, including a Japanese immigrant photographer named George Masa and a recovering alcoholic writer named Horace Kephart. Their work, and the work of a handful of others, got the attention of the Roosevelt administration, which, in the depths of the Depression, was looking for a way to create a great eastern park to compliment the magnificent western parks that you mention visiting in your childhood. Masa and Kephart are testimonies that preservation can begin in art and writing.
Roosevelt (a great lover of trees who for many years entered “forester” as his profession on his income tax forms) encouraged the process, and for the first time ever, the federal government decided to buy back private lands to make a public treasure. The problem was: a lot of people lived within the boundaries of the proposed park and had been living there for generations. Beyond buying up the lumber-company lands, the government had to buy up thousands of small landowners and farmers. Those who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave were given “life leases” to remain in place.
Securing half a million acres of land from thousands of stakeholders involved considerable expense. Rockefeller, the federal government, and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina all contributed millions. The schoolchildren of both states hoarded their pennies and nickels to help make it happen. All this represents a level of commitment and sacrifice to the common good that is hard to imagine in Trump America. The result is the largest terrestrial area of fully protected land east of the Rockies. And the park, although by law free to all visitors in perpetuity, brings in close to a billion dollars to the local economies. Every year. Even the rugged individualist cultures of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina now, in the words of one local, “thank God every day for the saving of this place.”
It’s tempting to think that such an accomplishment in preservation will last forever. But then, until last year, most of us probably thought that national monuments could never be opened to mining, industry, and other extraction, which is happening now.
MORROW: That this book literally changed your life—taking you to the Smoky Mountains, where its great forests are basically your backyard now—is, to me, both moving and inspiring. I’m reminded of Yeats’s poem about how the intellect is forced to choose between “perfection of the life, or of the work” and wonder if you’ve managed to embrace both. Near the end of your character Ray Brinkman’s life, his wife, Dorothy, undergoes a spiritual transformation that is as unexpected as it is lovely to witness. In an idealistic, limited, yet powerful gesture meant to help nature sustain and renew itself, they decide not to mow their suburban lawn anymore and to allow their small corner of the world to return to its natural state. Their community, which prefers its houses to be landscaped with mulched flower beds, manicured lawns, and pruned trees, is unhappy about the presence of this would-be Walden in the neighborhood. Readers who learn the outcome of their seemingly harmless activism, as well as that of others who are more aggressively engaged in protesting the defiling of our woodlands, won’t emerge from the novel unchanged.
While The Overstory is a literary novel, to be sure, I wonder if its author, who in the midst of researching and composing it underwent a significant life change, views the book as something of a manifesto, an aesthetically sophisticated work of fiction that also prompts its readers to reconsider their place in the natural world and their responsibilities toward its preservation. There is a passage toward the end when your character Douglas reminded me a bit of his progenitor. “The pen moves; the ideas form, as if by spirit hand. Something shines out, a truth so self-evident that the words dictate themselves. We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling. And what Douglas Pavlicek wants to know is why this is so easy to see when you’re by yourself in a cabin on a hillside, and almost impossible to believe once you step out of the house and join several billion folks doubling down on the status quo.” What, if anything, would your ideal reader do on finishing The Overstory beyond appreciating it as a complex and satisfying work of art?
POWERS: Writing this book has changed me profoundly, far beyond the huge change of moving me into a different life in a different part of the country. It has changed how I spend my days, what things give me joy and sorrow, and the way I read the words of others. For the first time in the third of a century that I have been writing and publishing fiction, I don’t want to go on to research and write about another topic. I just want to keep writing this same book, again and again.
We are now engaged in a massive, communal, consensual sleepwalk, a trance that we can’t even see, under the spell of individualist humanism and commodity culture that we call inevitable progress. The fact that the blessings of contemporary life have been won at the expense of a disastrous depletion of natural capital remains almost invisible to most of us. As Fredric Jameson famously and controversially put it, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.
While I have long prided myself on being environmentally conscious, I was always missing a key part of the equation. And that’s why the usual proposals for human ecological action always depressed me. I followed (and still follow) the litanies and lists of what each of us must do: reduce energy consumption and travel, eat lower down on the food chain, recycle, and all the familiar rest. But I felt a hollowness at the heart of these imperatives, because they masked an essential missing bit of revolution. They were still advocating for kinder, gentler, individualist commodity capitalism! They failed to tell me how I might escape the prison.
To live on this primarily nonhuman planet, we must change how we think of nonhumans. They are not here merely to serve as our resources. They are intelligent agents, deserving of legal standing, creatures that want something from each other and from us. They, much more than we, have created this place. We are not their masters; our dependence on them should make us more like their resourceful servants. They are gifts, and all of us know how sparingly and reverently a gift is best used. As a friend puts it: How little we would need if we knew how much we have.
The salvation of humanity—for it’s us, not the world, who need to be saved—and our continued lease on this planet depend on our development of tree consciousness. We are here by the grace of trees and forests. They make our atmosphere, clean our water, and sustain the cycles of life that permit us. Just begin to see them. See them up close and personal. See them from far away across great distances. Notice all the million complex beautiful behaviors and forms that have always slipped right past you. Simply see, and the rest will begin to follow. Every other act of preservation depends on that first step.
For writers: ask yourself how many invisible nonhuman actors and agents are required to enable your tale of individual self-realization or domestic drama, then make those hidden sponsors visible. For readers: let the beauty of whatever book you’ve just read teach you to read the world beyond what we human beings call the real world. And for all of us, there is always Thoreau: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”