Trees, and how to love them

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree.


I have lately become taken with trees. This has been growing the past several years, as I have become increasingly annoyed at myself for not recognizing trees by their leaves, or their bark, or their shape. I know some, obviously–everyone knows some. But England is a country of trees, and I’m still getting up to speed. Oaks and maples, sure, and who knew that maples and sycamores were the same family? And is that an ash or a rowan? I’m getting better, but it’s a process. Mrs W and I have one of those tree identifier apps from the good old Woodland Trust, and, remarkably, we use them. Not that we can ever remember anything five minutes later, but that’s pretty much true of everything these days.

And Britain has been having this remarkable surge of landscape writing, as we have noted before. This includes–is grounded in, one might say– a number of really interesting books on trees–Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings, Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees, Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest, the late Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey through Trees, Colin Tudge’s encyclopedic The Secret Life of Trees, Richard Fortey’s TheWood for the Trees–there’s a whole list of wonderful books about trees and the English landscape that weren’t there ten or fifteen years ago. Plus there’s the usual batch of apocalyptic books about the decline in global forests, which are eminently findable. And, unfortunately, true. Unlike the previous list, which is invigorating, this second list is just depressing.

Trees are critical, and we’re finding out just how critical all the time. Which is why the recent managed massive tree massacres in Sheffield, and by Network Rail, have generated such fury. But this is just in the UK. Similar assaults on forests occur all the time. Poland is aggressively cutting back Europe’s oldest forest. Malaysia continues to clearcut its old-growth forests so that palm oil plantations can be developed. Like everything else, this is problem that individuals feel powerless to address. Institutional forces are slow to respond, as we all know, and the institutions we inhabit still represent a rather primitive mindset about trees. What we don’t know about trees, but are learning, is a whole lot–and we know even less about forests, which turn out to be, well, alive. Trees fight off attackers. They communicate with each other. They generate lord knows how wide a range of substances, many of which have medicinal uses. And we know so little about them.

Humans still have a pretty brutal relationship to trees and, particularly, to forests. Until recently, forests were a place of danger, and who does not feel a sense of that danger in the forest at night even now? It’s not our world. So we destroy them, ever more rapidly, and ever more completely. There’s a reason why Derrick Jensen and George Draffen title their 2003 book about the global destruction forests Strangely Like War. In the interim, one would be hard pressed to find evidence to the contrary. The war continues, unrelenting.

So reading a novel in which trees play the central role is a treat, and when that novel is by Richard Powers, so much the better. The Overstory concerns a number of people whose paths tend to converge on a redwood grove in California where some magnificent old trees are under threat–and the aftermath. Powers has obviously read his Edward Abbey, and the message is identical–even more forceful, actually, given what’s at stake. Powers is a master storyteller, and, even better, he gets science, and what I thought I knew about trees is nothing to what I took away from this book. Like all of Posers’ work, it is deep in characterization, relished the occasional implausibility of events, and weaves a mosaic of parallel stories that converge, unconverge, and converge again. Satisfying, as is the case with nearly all of Powers’ novels.

But this one is considerably more disturbing than the rest of Powers’ work, because he clearly believes in the subject–trees, forests, and their potential for salvation, theirs and ours. And he clearly knows what’s at stake–the ever-accelerating race to turn the world’s forests into parallel lines of straight trees suitable for harvesting. The Overstory is one long polemic–a beautiful, troubling one, but a polemic nonetheless–against this trend. He knows is probably a losing battle, at least for us. But one of the messages of the book is different times–there’s human time, and there’s tree time. For trees and old-growth forests, and there are still many around the world, human time barely registers. In California trees that began to grow before Christ was born are still being cut down. In some areas, the forest is coming back, but it’s coming back at tree time, where that’s happening. We won’t see it. But it’s a hopeful message–humans coming to understand tree time.

The UK, like the rest of Europe, is once again dealing with a significant tree catastrophe. Years after elms got wiped out here (and in the US, following the chestnut die-off,) ash trees are now the victim of another, immigrant disease that is causing a disaster among Britain’s ash forests–what’s left of them anyway. So there are times when tree time and human time interact–it turns out that trees, surprisingly, can die quickly. They continue to contribute to life in other ways–dead trees on the ground stimulate literally thousands and thousands of living organisms. But it’s one of the ways we remind ourselves that we have a connection to nature–watching something that you love die. It may not be a painful death–although how would we know?–but it’s a death nonetheless.

So I’ve started to at least try to come to understand trees a bit better. I’m learning what’s in my yard. I forget it, but then I relearn it, and eventually it sticks. Bushes too–we’ve got both a purple and a while lilac, and a viburnum in the back. Not really trees, but close enough. I’m still trying to figure out what the thing in front is that has copper leaves but is definitely not a beech tree. But there’s a beech in the back, right next to a silver birch. And something that may or may not be a hawthorn, and something else that looks suspiciously like a cypress, except it resembles no cypress I can find in any of my guides. Then I want to find out who likes to live there. Are there particular birds that favor one tree over another? Newts at the roots? Voles scurrying around beneath the leaf cover and tall grass that I keep meaning to mow? I’ve already seen the fox, who apparently is fearless. Next will be what’s on my street–which seems to have a good number of trees. Then the park two blocks away. What an excellent project!

Maybe because I keep getting older, but I’m beginning to understand what W.S. Merwin meant when he wrote

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree.