The Overstory, by Richard Powers

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I read this popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel a few months ago but wanted to let it sit for a while before blogging about it. I needed to sort out the emotions it left me with: a combination of enchantment and disappointment.

It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees.

Writers are told to avoid polemics, to get down off our soapboxes, or we risk annoying or alienating readers. I don’t think anyone could question the wondrous greatness of trees or their life going on independently of us, yet Powers avoids the trap of dogma by giving us their side of the story through those of his characters, their resistance, their devotion, their sacrifice.

I didn’t need convincing. I’ve had a deep emotional attachment to trees since earliest childhood, counting some among my best friends. Nor did the rest of my book club, all of us already in love with trees, living as we do in the Green Mountains. Yet we all struggled with the beginning of the book, unable to remember the characters after each was introduced in the first section, having to flip back to remind ourselves.

We were also disappointed—while profoundly moved—by the ending. I try not to give away endings, so I’ll just echo the assertion of writing master Donald Maass that we want stories that reflect reality; he says, “the truth is that while we may live in a bleak world we are not empty inside.” Here, the enigmatic ending left us debating this idea.

The baffling prologue was enough to make me put the book down several times before reluctantly reading on for the sake of my book club. As it turns out, it doesn’t reflect the book as a whole. You can safely skip it.

Otherwise, the writing is often is enchanting. Eventually the characters became distinct and memorable but always the events and descriptions kept me reading.

Now the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree, as different from an oak as a woman is from a man. It’s the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety.

Powers also brings devastating psychological insight to his characters. One, a man who has lived a life considered normal for a middle-class American man, says: “I’ve been a man who happily confuses the agreed-upon for the actual.” A brilliant description that could fit quite a few people I know.

But what I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story, surely another meaning of the title, which the author uses as a synonym for trees’ canopy. By telling the world’s story through those of nine characters, Powers has chosen the most effective way to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. As writing master Lisa Cron has memorably described stories have been our means of survival since the earliest days. Stories are how we learn and the best way for us to remember.

My book club discussed the concept of forest bathing, the idea of destressing and even healing by walking through the woods, agreeing that we all had been doing this long before the term was coined. We hoped that this novel would increase awareness of and activism to protect the natural world, especially our beloved trees.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, by Barbara Hurd

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I loved this book so much that the person from whom I borrowed it actually gave it to me (thanks, Anne!). Reading it, I was reminded of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book about encountering the natural world and the human condition, a book that stunned me. So much so, now that I think of it, that the person from whom I borrowed it gave it to me (thanks, Jill!).

Stirring the Mud is a slight book, only nine essays, but I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks, pondering the images and leaps of thought.

To love a swamp . . . is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised.

My love for the natural world tends to lean toward trees and streams, long walks on ocean beaches, and the rosemary and warm tomatoes in my garden. I’ve had an inchoate fear of swamps since childhood, when one third of our property by the Chesapeake Bay was a swamp. Or at least, that’s what my mother called it, warning us to stay out of it because it was full of snakes.

What unnerves me now about swamps and bogs, having stumbled into more than a few, is the uncertainty, the way what seems solid suddenly gives way under you. Hurd persuades me to treasure this experience. She reminds me that this feeling is both the fear and the joy of creativity: each time I start to write, I plunge into uncertainty.

Reading these essays, I came to love standing with Hurd as she lets her shoes sink into the mud, water seeping in to wet her socks, thinking about what grows there, what is lost there, what is preserved there. She examines the liminality of these places, how mysteriously hidden their edges are.

When by some act of grace, the lines we think are there dissolve, something else appears, something timeless and rich, an intermediate zone, languid and latent, the lushness of something about to be and in no particular hurry to make it happen.

I appreciate the information she includes to provide context, telling us for example that Finzel Swamp is a palustrine wetland and explaining what that means. Most of all, I love her close observation of the swamps she visits and the way she includes us in the experience.

One time, not far from the alders at Finzel, I found a small congregation of Indian pipes sprouting out of the leaf mold. Two inches high, these albino plants resemble a sculpture of dripped wax turned upside down in the dirt. The color of breast milk, bluish, almost translucent, they are saprophytic plants, meaning they need decay in order to live. I don’t know what it is about such ghostly whiteness that suggests silence, as if color were also sound and the absence of one means the absence of the other. Lovers of the damp, they don’t look like pipes to me but like nuns, their heads bowed, lips open, mouthing a constant and silent syllable.

Look at the lovely consistency of imagery in that description: congregation, dripping wax, ghosts and nuns. Even their name suggests the pipes of the organ with their open mouths, singing. And other images set against them, muddling them: breast milk, decay, absence.

I know I will keep coming back to this book. For the last few years I’ve been pondering margins and thresholds, but Hurd’s essays have caused a fundamental shift in my thoughts. I realised I’d been thinking of margins and thresholds as horizontal, stepping through a door for instance. Hurd makes me consider the vertical, what is below me, invisible if my eyes are trained on what may be in front of me. Similarly, based on reading poet David Hinton’s work, I’ve been letting go of the idea of time as linear and instead thinking of it as a constantly changing present, a present that I am sinking into ever more deeply.

What do you associate with swamps or bogs?

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

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Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. Although I live in the mid-Atlantic, we share the same type of forest as southern New England, one of seven types in the U.S. Ours is called the Central Forest. There are differences, but the trees I see from my porch are those I saw in Massachusetts: oak, maple, white pine, honey locust, maple, ash. We also have sweet gum and black walnut, which are not found up north, or at least not yet.

This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime.

Wessels sets up each chapter as a mystery, starting with an etching of a forest by Brian D. Cohen and then pulls out the clues that tell us what has happened there. Was it once a pasture or farm that was left to reforest itself? Has it been logged, and if so, how many times? Has there been a hurricane or a forest fire? Have they been affected by blight? What do the trees tell us about the soil and topography?

At the end of most chapters, he takes a look back at the historical context of the disturbance. For example, in precolonial New England, Native Americans used fire as a forest management tool. They burned the litter on the ground and low-growing vegetation to control insects and make it easier to move silently. “These precolonial, fire-managed woodlands looked dramatically different from New England’s present forests. They were parklike, with massive hardwoods creating a canopy over forest floors carpeted with grasses and berry bushes.”

However, the diseases brought by settlers decimated the Native American population, whose knowledge was then lost. “Within fifty years of the landing at Plymouth Rock, the Native American, fire-managed ecosystems of southern New England became a memory,” replaced by the dense, almost impenetrable forest that I see from my porch.

There are also fascinating nuggets buried in this irresistibly engaging book. For example, in the last major gypsy moth outbreak in central New England in the summer of 1981, scientists found that “the oak trees not yet attacked by the gypsy moth larvae changed their leaf chemistry, apparently in anticipation of the approaching insects.” The trees were communicating with each other using an airborne chemical message (jasmonic acid).

This discovery reminds me of another book I’ve heard of but not yet read: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben. A German forest ranger, Wohlleben explains that trees are social beings, working together in networks and sharing resources. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

Now when I stand on the porch, I can read the history of the trees in front of me. More than that, I’m aware that what I see are not the separate individual trees I’ve always thought them, but rather a community. These trees are talking to each other in ways that I cannot decipher.

What book has changed your view of the natural world?