Richard Smith: A eulogy for trees and humanity

“Words strikes him as a ruse. His maize and beans and squash—all growing things alone disclose the wordless mind of God.” This doesn’t seem like a good place for a novelist to start work, but Richard Powers, despite writing those words, has written a rich novel that is likely to survive longer than humanity. The Overstory is filled with character and incident enough to engage anybody, but it’s also filled with philosophy, science, poetry, and colour. It’s a celebration of the world and humanity, but also tells of our coming doom. Perhaps above all it’s a eulogy to trees. Eulogy is the right word because the novel celebrates the life, the beauty and wisdom of trees—but also their death. The novel also casts a cold—but loving—eye on humanity.

Trees are wise, and forests are even wiser: “Trees talk to one another, over the air and underground. They care and feed each other, orchestrating shared behaviors through the networked soil. They build immune systems as wide as a forest.” The novel tells the real story of how only within the past few decades have scientists recognised how interconnected trees, fungi, and other living things are (“the wood wide web,” as the journal Nature calls it) and how the female scientist who first recognised this capacity of trees was dismissed as a “tree hugger.”

Powers asks us to imagine “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.” I heard how we in Brits are urged to plant trees to celebrate the Jubilee of the Queen. I’m pleased.

Unfortunately, we humans have failed to recognise how interconnected we are with trees and how if we are to have a future it depends on them. “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 ….” Much of the novel is set in the 60s and 70s when the old growth forests of the West Coast of the US were being destroyed, but much of that is now gone and destruction is concentrated in the Amazon, where an “area of rainforest equivalent in size to Isle of Man [was] destroyed in April alone.”

Actually, not all humans have failed to recognise our interconnectedness with and dependence on trees. People I was brought up to think of as “primitive” and “uncivilised” succeeded where we “modern” people have failed: “the Achuar—people of the palm tree—sing to their gardens and forests, but secretly, in their heads, so only the souls of the plants can hear. 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….Such a culture might save the Earth.”

Powers sees little chance of our species surviving much longer, but he plays with the interesting idea that the law might save us—by giving trees, forests, and mountains the same rights as humans: “Children, women, slaves, aboriginals, the ill, insane, and disabled: all changed, unthinkably, over the centuries, into persons by the law. So why shouldn’t trees and eagles and rivers and living mountains be able to sue humans for theft and endless damages?”

Despite playing with the idea, Powers is unconvinced: “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….Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it.”

Yet although humanity won’t survive, trees probably will: “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.” This, I see, as a message of hope. Perhaps a new humanity will arise, a better, more evolved humanity that will not make the same mistakes.

In the meantime, what can we who are living now do? Powers writes approvingly of the protestors of the 60s and 70s who tied themselves to trees and even climbed the top and lived in the branches of the tallest trees, preventing the loggers from cutting them down. But the answer to the question asked in the novel “What is the single best thing a person can do for tomorrow’s world?” is to die….”We’re the ones who need repairing. Trees remember what we’ve forgotten. Every speculation must make room for another. Dying is life, too.”

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.