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the_overstory

The Overstory – Richard Powers

(reading notes from The Overstory by Richard Powers)

First there was nothing. Then there was everything. Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages. 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. It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering.

First there was nothing. Then there was everything. Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages. 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. It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering. It says: A good answer must be reinvented many times, from scratch.

All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.

If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.

in Brooklyn, a poet-nurse to the Union dying writes: A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.

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.

sentinel tree.

zoopraxiscope

his own private liturgy of the Church of the Spreading Vegetative God

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.

By 1940, the fungus takes everything, all the way out to the farthest stands in southern Illinois. Four billion trees in the native range vanish into myth. Aside from a few secret pockets of resistance, the only chestnuts left are those that pioneers took far away, to states beyond the reach of the drifting spores.

His pointless photographic ritual gives Frank Jr.’s life a blind purpose that even farming cannot give. It’s a monthly exercise in noticing a thing worth no notice at all, a creature as steadfast and reticent as life.

The photos hide everything

everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame. Inside the frame, through hundreds of revolving seasons, there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early middle age, growing at the speed of wood.

At school in Chicago, he learned many things: 1. Human history was the story of increasingly disoriented hunger. 2. Art was nothing he thought it was. 3. People would make just about anything you can think to make. Intricate scrimshawed portraits on the tips of pencil leads. Polyurethane-coated dog shit. Earthworks that could pass for small nations. 4. Makes you think different about things, don’t it?

“You live between three trees. One is behind you. The Lote—the tree of life for your Persian ancestors. The tree at the boundary of the seventh heaven, that none may pass. Ah, but engineers have no use for the past, do they?”

Shouying

“Another tree stands in front of you—Fusang. A magical mulberry tree far to the east, where they keep the elixir of life.”

“The third tree is all around you: Now. And like Now itself, it will follow wherever you go.”

“Luóhàn. Arhats. Adepts who have passed through the four stages of Enlightenment and now live in pure, knowing joy.”

“You can’t come back to something that is gone.”

It’s a single tree with two sexes, older than the separation of yin and yang, the Tree of Renewal, the tree at the universe’s center, the hollow tree housing the sacred Tao.

He maps the sandbars, measures the speed of the water, reads the bottom, watches for hatch—those simultaneous equations in multiple unknowns that one must solve to think like a fish—all the while conscious of nothing but the sheer luck of being on the water.

“Maybe you should plant another.” “Best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.” “Yep. And you always said the next best time was now.” “Wrong. Next best time, nineteen years ago.”

There’s something wrong with regular people. They’re far from being the best creatures in the world.

cuing, priming, framing, confirmation bias, and the conflation of correlation with causality—all these faults, built into the brain of the most problematic of large mammals.

Each child’s tree has its own excellence: the ash’s diamond-shaped bark, the walnut’s long compound leaves, the maple’s shower of helicopters, the vase-like spread of the elm, the ironwood’s fluted muscle.

He finds the words in a book: A tree is a passage between earth and sky

Patterns reveal themselves as he watches, and they’re wild. Nobody’s in charge of the mass mobilization, that much seems clear. Yet they port the sticky food back to the nest in the most coordinated way. Plans in the absence of any planner. Paths in the absence of a surveyor.

But a human child can know it’s pointed wrong and still consider the direction well worth a try.

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.

His words of thanks contain four of the top six releasers for producing action patterns in someone else: reciprocity, scarcity, validation, and appeal to commitment.

THEY’RE NOT HARD TO FIND: two people for whom trees mean almost nothing.

Something

Something is happening to me. Something heavy, huge, and slow, coming from far outside, that I do not understand.

Someone starts to scream: “It’s a simulation, dammit. It’s a fucking simulation!”

Each of the world’s seven hundred and fifty species of Ficus has its own unique wasp tailored to fertilize it. And this one wasp somehow found the precise fig species of her destiny.

It grew; its roots slipped down and encased its host. Decades passed. Centuries. War on the backs of elephants gave way to televised moon landings and hydrogen bombs.

In time, the single central stem became a stand. The fig spread outward into an oval grove of three hundred main trunks and two thousand minor ones. And yet it was all still a single fig. One banyan.

Douggie is aware that the behavior could appear somewhat eccentric, from the outside. But it’s Idaho, and when you spend all your hours with horses, your soul expands a bit until the ways of men reveal themselves to be no more than a costume party you’d be well advised not to take at face value.

Douggie’s growing conviction that the greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth.

Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.

You just have to outlast us. Then no one will be left to fuck you over.

Something slow and purposeful wants to turn every human building into soil.

There’s a thing in programming called branching. And that’s what Neelay Mehta does. He will reincarnate himself, live again as people of all races, genders, colors, and creeds. He’ll raise decaying corpses and eat the souls of the young. He’ll tent high up in the canopies of lush forests, lie in broken heaps at the bottom of impossibly high cliffs, and swim in the seas of planets with many suns. He’ll spend his life in the service of an immense conspiracy, launched from the Valley of Heart’s Delight, to take over the human brain and change it more than anything since writing.

Something inside these tiny, mutable components is waiting to get out. Or rather: there’s something that these reticent things might be made to do, something humans haven’t even imagined yet.

Aliens land on Earth. They’re little runts, as alien races go. But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow. They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see—so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years. To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat. The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply. Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.

a plaque inscribed with the words from his favorite author: Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe in the future he shall be.

AT FIRST, the point of coding is to give everything away. Pure philanthropy.

BRACHYCHITON RUPESTRIS. QUEENSLAND BOTTLE TREE.

just beneath their skins, the teeming assemblies of cells, like whole planetary civilizations, pulse and hum.

Which is more numerous: the stars in the Milky Way or the chloroplasts on a single leaf of corn? Which trees flower before they leaf, and which flower after? Why are the leaves at the top of trees often smaller than those at the bottom?

If you carved your name four feet high in the bark of a beech tree, how high would it be after half a century? She loves the answer to that last one: Four feet. Still four feet. Always four feet, however high the beech tree grows.

acorn animism turns bit by bit into its offspring, botany.

plants are willful and crafty and after something, just like people.

“It’s a great idea, trees. So great that evolution keeps inventing it, again and again.”

Plant-blind. Adam’s curse. We only see things that look like us.

marcescent

But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree

Pawpaw! The only tropical fruit ever to escape the tropics

He tells her how the word beech becomes the word book, in language after language. How book branched up out of beech roots, way back in the parent tongue. How beech bark played host to the earliest Sanskrit letters.

Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things.

The fables seem to be less about people turning into other living things than about other living things somehow reabsorbing, at the moment of greatest danger, the wildness inside people that never really went away.

stories where people change into trees. Daphne, transformed into a bay laurel just before Apollo can catch and harm her. The women killers of Orpheus, held fast by the earth, watching their toes turn into roots and their legs into woody trunks. She reads of the boy Cyparissus, whom Apollo converts into a cypress so that he might grieve forever for his slain pet deer.

autumn comes. The days shorten. Night falls early, signaling the trees to drop their sugar-making project, shed all vulnerable parts, and harden up. Sap falls. Cells become permeable. Water flows out of the trunks and concentrates into anti-freeze. The dormant life just below the bark is lined with water so pure that nothing is left to help it crystallize.

The promotion of Baucis and Philemon to trees.

Then she weighs both the plant and the earth it fed on. The fraction of an ounce of beechnut now weighs more than she does. But the soil weighs just what it did, minus an ounce or two. There’s no other explanation: almost all the tree’s mass has come from the very air. Her father knew this. Now she does, too.

She does try the books her friends are reading: Siddhartha, Naked Lunch, On the Road. But nothing else moves her more than Peattie’s Natural Histories

Soon, she sees. Something is wrong with the entire field, not just at Purdue, but nationwide. The men in charge of American forestry dream of turning out straight clean uniform grains at maximum speed. They speak of thrifty young forests and decadent old ones, of mean annual increment and economic maturity. She’s sure these men who run the field will have to fall, next year or the year after. And up from the downed trunks of their beliefs will spring rich new undergrowth. That’s where she’ll thrive.

It’s the refrain of all good science: ‘How could we not have seen?’ ”

A secret suspicion sets her apart from the others. She’s sure, on no evidence whatsoever, that trees are social creatures. It’s obvious to her: motionless things that grow in mass mixed communities must have evolved ways to synchronize with one another. Nature knows few loner trees. But the belief leaves her marooned. Bitter irony: here she is, with her people, at last, and even they can’t see the obvious.

photosynthesis: a feat of chemical engineering underpinning creation’s entire cathedral. All the razzmatazz of life on Earth is a free-rider on that mind-boggling magic act. The secret of life: plants eat light and air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things.

Hundreds of chlorophyll molecules assemble into antennae complexes. Countless such antennae arrays form up into thylakoid discs. Stacks of these discs align in a single chloroplast. Up to a hundred such solar power factories power a single plant cell. Millions of cells may shape a single leaf. A million leaves rustle in a single glorious ginkgo.

Muir. A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf and My First Summer in the Sierra

The words withstand the full brutality of day. 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.

Her breakthrough comes as breakthroughs often do: by long and prepared accident

The trees under attack pump out insecticides to save their lives. That much is uncontroversial. But something else in the data makes her flesh pucker: trees a little way off, untouched by the invading swarms, ramp up their own defenses when their neighbor is attacked. Something alerts them. They get wind of the disaster, and they prepare.

No other animal closes ranks faster than Homo sapiens.

Every year, amateur mycologists mistake young A. bisporigera for Agaricus silvicola or even Volvariella volvacea.

It’s nothing. What frightens people most will one day turn to wonder. And then people will do what four billion years have shaped them to do: stop and see just what it is they’re seeing.

The thing is outlandish, beyond her ability to wrap her head around. But then, as Dr. Westerford knows, the world’s outlands are everywhere, and trees like to toy with human thought like boys toy with beetles.

. And yet their lives have long been connected, deep underground. Their kinship will work like an unfolding book. The past always comes clearer, in the future

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. . . .

The motionless trees are migrating—immortal stands of aspen retreating before the latest two-mile-thick glaciers, then following them back north again. Life will not answer to reason. And meaning is too young a thing to have much power over it.

spore clouds, broken webs and mammal dander, skeletonized mites, bits of insect frass and bird feather

She walks in silence, crunching ten thousand invertebrates with every step, watching for tracks in a place where at least one of the native languages uses the same word for footprint and understanding.

Death is everywhere, oppressive and beautiful. She sees the source of that forestry doctrine she so resisted in school. Looking at all this glorious decay, a person might be forgiven for thinking that old meant decadent, that such thick mats of decomposition were cellulose cemeteries in need of the rejuvenating ax. She sees why her kind will always dread these close, choked thickets, where the beauty of solo trees gives way to something massed, scary, and crazed. When the fable turns dark, when the slasher film builds to primal horror, this is where the doomed children and wayward adolescents must wander. There are things in here worse than wolves and witches, primal fears that no amount of civilizing will ever tame.

SHE FINDS WORK with the Bureau of Land Management. Wilderness ranger. The job description seems as miraculous as the outsized trees: Help preserve and protect for present and future generations places where man is a visitor who does not remain.

Trees trade airborne aerosol signals, the article says. They make medicines. Their fragrances alert and awaken their neighbors. They can sense an attacking species and summon an air force to come to their aid.

Science in the service of willful blindness: How could so many smart people have missed the obvious? A person has only to look, to see that dead logs are far more alive than living ones. But the senses never have much chance, against the power of doctrine.

“We’re planning to study this particular log until it’s gone.”

“Best thing about studying the forest. You’re dead by the time the future can blame you for missing the obvious!”

Slow, long observation makes a laughingstock of what people think about trees.

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.

Wasps’ nests. Insect galls. Pretty stones polished by the creeks.

There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.

based on a fact-like scenario

For the first time, she realizes that being alone is a contradiction in terms. Even in a body’s most private moments, something else joins in. Someone spoke to her when she was dead.

“Insurance,” the lecturer says, “is the backbone of civilization. No risk pool—no skyscrapers, no blockbuster movies, no large-scale agriculture, no organized medicine.”

She liked the Jesus who would appall every law-abiding, property-acquiring American Christian. Jesus the Communist, the crazed shop-trasher, the friend of deadbeats. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

myths are basic truths twisted into mnemonics, instructions posted from the past, memories waiting to become predictions.

The world starts here. This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.

There’s a thing people in the theater call hanging the lampshade. Say there’s a big ugly piece of pipe sticking out the backstage wall, and you can’t get rid of it. Stick a shade on it and call it a fixture.

since she started hearing voices, the word has become less useful

Family Tree. Shoe Tree. Money Tree. Barking up the Wrong Tree.

Art and acorns: both profligate handouts that go mostly wrong.

No strangeness stranger than the strangeness of living things

“I don’t know. I don’t know what to believe. It’s stupid to believe anything at all. We’re always, always wrong.”

The city has declared the accumulation of dead needles and bark to be a fire hazard and the trees too old and expensive to clean up, year after year. They plan to replace the pines with a cleaner, safer species. Forces opposed to the removal have asked for a public hearing.

“People have no idea. Still the Age of Wood. Cheapest priceless stuff that ever has been.”

This is how it was with the Indian prince Siddhartha, when life abandoned him and his pleasures went away. He sat under a magnificent peepul—a Bo, Ficus religiosa—and vowed not to stand up again until he understood what life wanted from him. One month passed, then another. Then he woke up from the dream of humankind. Truths blazed into his head, things so simple, hidden in broad light. At that moment, the tree above the new Buddha—cuttings from which still grow across the globe—burst into flowers, and the flowers changed into plump purple figs.

What do I do now, for the next forty years? What work can’t the efficiency of unified mankind chop into pure fertilizer?

The branch wants only to go on branching. The point of the game is to keep playing. He can’t possibly sell the company. There’s a bit of ancestral code, already present in the earliest programs he and his father wrote, that has yet to have its way with him. He sees the next project, and it’s the simplest thing. Like evolution, it reuses all the old, successful parts of everything that has come before. Like evolution, it just means unfolding.

Beliefs should not be considered delusional if they are in keeping with societal norms.

guerrilla forestry.

The wrong people have all the rights

It depends on a person’s ability to say nevertheless, to do one small thing that seems beyond them, and, for a moment, break the grip of time.

Oak veneration at the oracle at Dodona, the druids’ groves in Britain and Gaul, Shinto sakaki worship, India’s bejeweled wishing trees, Mayan kapoks, Egyptian sycamores, the Chinese sacred ginkgo—all the branches of the world’s first religion.

the drupes and racemes, panicles and involucres

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. . . .

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.

La ruta nos aportó otro paso natural

Forests panic people. Too much going on there. Humans need a sky.

Before it dies, a Douglas-fir, half a millennium old, will send its storehouse of chemicals back down into its roots and out through its fungal partners, donating its riches to the community pool in a last will and testament. We might well call these ancient benefactors giving trees. The reading public needs such a phrase to make the miracle a little more vivid, visible. It’s something she learned long ago, from her father: people see better what looks like them. Giving trees is something any generous person can understand and love

The solitary act of sitting over the page and waiting for her hand to move may be as close as she’ll ever get to the enlightenment of plants.

hopeful, useful, and true

Old Tjikko

Old Tjikko, up on that barren crest, endlessly dying and resurrecting in every change of climate. His use is to show that the world is not made for our utility. What use are we, to trees?

the 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.

chronophagic

Time-eating

People still have bodies. They want real power. Friends and lovers. Rewards. Accomplishments.

Reaction

Reaction runs the living spectrum. The banner-slingers are heroes. They’re grandstanding criminals who ought to be locked up. They’re animals. Animals: yes. Big-brained, altruistic, animal con artists who managed to block a state highway for a while and make it seem like wild things might have their way.

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.

“We’re living at a time when claims are being made for a moral authority that lies beyond the human.”

Plant rights? Plant personhood.

Identity formation and Big Five personality factors among plants rights activists.

Clown suits, swimsuits, jumpsuits—every kind of suit except three-piecers.

Who knows what medicines might be hidden here? The next aspirin, the next quinine; the next Taxol.

It’s a funny thing about capitalism: money you lose by slowing down is always more important than money you’ve already made.

Should Trees Have Standing?

It is no answer to say that streams and forests cannot have standing because streams and forests cannot speak. Corporations cannot speak, either; nor can states, estates, infants, incompetents, municipalities, or universities. Lawyers speak for them.

His whole self is dissolving. All his rights and privileges, everything he owns. A great gift that has been his since birth is being taken away. It’s a grand, luxurious act of self-deceit, an outright lie, that claim of Kant’s: As far as nonhumans are concerned, we have no direct duties. All exists merely as means to an end. That end is man.

But he’s living in a tree two hundred feet above the surface of the planet. Flying squirrels have surveilled his face. Fogs from the world’s infancy turn the clock back eons, and he feels himself becoming another species.

soon enough, an afternoon, half an hour, a minute, half a sentence, or half a word all feel the same size. They disappear into the rhythm of no rhythm at all.

the thousand spectral challenges of night that they cannot decode

a public convinced that all taxes are theft, but giving away public timber is not.

Now she watches him get stripped in public, in front of a stunned crowd. One leg is open to the air, bony and blanched, almost hairless, the furrowed thighs of a much older man. Then the other leg, and now the jeans hang open from the waist like a shredded banner. Out comes the triple-action pepper spray—capsaicin mixed with CS gas. The onlookers call out. “He’s chained in place, man. He can’t move!” “What do you want from him?” The officer puts the canister up into Douglas’s groin and sprays. Liquid fire spreads across his cock and balls—a cocktail amounting to a few million Scoville heat units. Douglas hangs, dangling from the cuffs, breathing in short little aspirated gasps. “Shi, shi, shit . . .” “For God’s sake. He can’t move. Leave him alone!” Mimi twists to see who yelled. It’s a logger, short and bearded, like an enraged dwarf from the pages of Grimm. “Unlock yourself,” one of the police orders. Words clog Douglas’s mouth. Nothing comes out but a low pitch, like the first half-second of an air raid. They spray him again. Protesters who’ve sat in place peacefully waiting to be booked start to revolt. Mimi rises in a rage. She’s shouting things she won’t remember even an hour from now. Others around her stand up, too. They converge on the prisoner’s tree. Police prod them back. The officers in the tree hit the naked groin with one more canister of spray. The soft, droned pitch in Douglas’s mouth begins a slow, awful rise.

The Web goes from unimaginable to indispensable, weaving the world together in eighteen months.

those words of Borges, still the guiding principle of his young life: Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe in the future he shall be.

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.

“It could be the eternal project of mankind, to learn what forests have figured out.”

Equipment still whines, down the gaping hillside. A nearby saw, a more distant trunk skidder: the two tree-sitters get good at telling the creatures apart by ear. Some mornings, those sounds are their only way of knowing if the system of free enterprise still barrels toward its God-sized wall.

“They can’t win. They can’t beat nature.” “But they can mess things over for an incredibly long time.”

THEY READ The Secret Forest again. It’s like a yew: more revealing on a second look. They read about how a branch knows when to branch. How a root finds water, even water in a sealed pipe. How an oak may have five hundred million root tips that turn away from competition. How crown-shy leaves leave a gap between themselves and their neighbors. How trees see color. They read about the wild stock market trading in handicrafts, aboveground and below. About the complex limited partnerships with other kinds of life. The ingenious designs that loft seeds in the air for hundreds of miles. The tricks of propagation worked upon unsuspecting mobile things tens of millions of years younger than the trees. The bribes for animals who think they’re getting lunch for free.

trees that migrate. Trees that remember the past and predict the future. Trees that harmonize their fruiting and nutting into sprawling choruses. Trees that bomb the ground so only their own young can grow. Trees that summon air forces of insects to come save them. Trees with hollowed trunks wide enough to hold the population of small hamlets. Leaves with fur on the undersides. Thinned petioles that solve the wind. The rim of life around a pillar of dead history, each new coat as thick as the maker season is generous.

Can you feel it lift and disappear? That standing wave of constant static. The distraction so ubiquitous you never even knew you were wrapped in it. Human certainty. The thing that blinds you to what’s right here—gone.

The teacher sucks in her breath. There’s shouting. The officer with the swab brings it down into the woman’s right eye. He struggles to get a little more into her left. Chemicals pool under the lid and stream down the side of the woman’s tipped-back face. The woman’s moans are pure animal. Each one rises in pitch until she’s screaming

What use is wilderness? What difference will it make, once the right to unlimited prosperity turns all forests into geometric proofs? The wind blows and the hemlocks wave their feathery leading shoots. Such a graceful profile, so elegant a tree. A tree embarrassed for people, embarrassed by efficiency, injunctions

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.” He nods, as if no one paying attention would be surprised.

“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.”

It dawns on the blue god: the fish in these seas, the birds in the air, and all that creeps on this made Earth is just a crude start for some future refuge, saved from the vanishing original.

Smart enough to see you’re a sack of rotting meat wrapped around a little sewage tube that’s going to give out in—what? Another few thousand sunrises?

either deeply depressed or a born-again realist.

“You’re studying what makes some people take the living world seriously when the only real thing for everyone else is other people. You should be studying everyone who thinks that only people matter.” Watchman laughs. “Talk about pathological.”

Do you know what actuarial science is?” “I . . . Is this a trick question?” “It’s the science of replacing an entire human life with its cash value.”

He wants to talk, a thing he hasn’t wanted to do for a while. “A lot of evidence suggests that group loyalty interferes with reason.” Maidenhair and Watchman trade smirks, like he’s just told them that science has proven that the atmosphere is mostly air. “People make reality. Hydroelectric dams. Undersea tunnels. Supersonic transport. Tough to stand against that.”

the tiny few immune to consensual reality

“Do you believe human beings are using resources faster than the world can replace them?”

“And would you say that the rate is falling or rising?”

Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it. So the authority of people is bankrupt.

The entire study begins to seem to Adam like a distraction. He needs to study illness on an unimaginable scale, an illness no bystander could even see to recognize.

“What’s crazier—plants speaking, or humans listening?”

Consciousness itself is a flavor of madness, set against the thoughts of the green world.

“Someone bombed the office. They were inside, writing a speech for the Board of Forestry action. The police are saying they blew themselves up with stockpiled explosives. Accusing the LDF of domestic terrorism.”

“You see their game,” Watchman tells him. “They don’t want the cost or publicity of putting us on trial. They just use the legal system to hurt us as much as they can.” “Isn’t there a law . . . ?” “There is. They’re breaking it. They can hold us seventy-two hours without charging. That was yesterday.” It occurs to Adam where the word radical came from. Radix. Wrad. Root. The plant’s, the planet’s, brain.

forest—all nine hundred kinds that humans have identified. Four billion hectares, from boreal to tropic—the Earth’s chief way of being.

There are consolations that the strongest human love is powerless to give.

CERTAIN TENDENCIES of radical environmentalist temperament emerge from the data. Core values, a sense of identity. The scores of only four of the thirty personality factors measured by the NEO inventory turn out to predict, with remarkable accuracy, whether a person will believe: A forest deserves protection regardless of its value to humans.

Something has broken in him. His appetite for human self-regard is dead.

“What?” he asks the tree. “What? ” The tree feels no need to reply.

The Northwest has more miles of logging road than public highway. More miles of logging road than streams. The country has enough to circle the Earth a dozen times. The cost of cutting them is tax-deductible, and the branches are growing faster than ever, as if spring has just sprung.

THE FREE BIOREGION OF CASCADIA

They’ve changed in some subtle way no personality test could quantify. Grimmer, more resolute. The death of Mimas has compressed them, like shale into slate. Their transformation makes Adam wish that he’d chosen some other topic to research. Resilience, immanence, numen—qualities his discipline is notoriously poor in measuring.

Maybe it’s okay. Maybe mass extinction justifies a little fuzziness. Maybe earnestness can help his hurt species as much as anything. Who is he to say?

Please, if it’s in your heart to do so, repeat these words after me. ‘From this day forward . . .’ ” “ ‘From this day forward . . .’ ” He can’t very well not repeat, with so many people assembled to watch him. “ ‘. . . I’ll commit myself to respect and defend . . .’ ” “ ‘. . . I’ll commit myself to respect and defend . . .’ ” “ ‘. . . the common cause of living things.’ ”

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

Klamath-Modoc.

“Politicians want to be on the winning side. Blow the way the wind does.” Maidenhair murmurs, “The Earth is always going to win.”

IT ISN’T REAL. It’s no more than theater, a simulation, until they see the aftermath

IT’S A SINGLE ACT of desperation. But the need for justice is like ownership or love. Feeding it only makes it grow. Two weeks after the machine shed, they target a sawmill near Solace, California, operating for months under a revoked license and paying the nuisance fine with a week’s worth of profits.

“I feel like I’ve been at a continuous funeral for two years.” “Ever since the blinders came off,” the child clown agrees. “All the protests. All the letters. Getting beat up. Shouting at the top of our lungs, and no one hearing.” “We accomplished more in two nights than we did with years of effort.” Accomplishment is not something Adam knows how to measure anymore. What they’re doing—what he has done—is simply to make the pain stop long enough to bear. Mimi says, “It’s not a funeral anymore.”

. “We destroy a small amount of equipment, or that equipment destroys a huge amount of life.” The psychologist listens. There are other, much deeper deceptions at the heart of humans.

A little time must be bought from the approaching apocalypse

The Four Rules of Arson. Setting Fires with Electrical Timers.

the insanity of denying the bedrock of human existence. Property and mastery: nothing else counts. 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.

Likeness is the sole problem of men.

They speak through their needles, trunks, and roots. They record in their own bodies the history of every crisis they’ve lived through

The five white spruces sign the blue air. They write: Light and water and a little crushed stone demand long answers

Nearby lodgepoles and jack pines demur: Long answers need long time. And long time is exactly what’s vanishing.

The black spruces down the drumlin put it bluntly: Warm is feeding on warm. The permafrost is belching. The cycle speeds up.

Farther south, broadleaves agree. Noisy aspens and remnant birches, forests of cottonwoods and poplars, take up the chorus: The world is turning into a new thing.

Even here, homeless, he thinks: Nothing will be the same. The spruces answer: Nothing has ever been the same.

We have always all been doomed. But things are different this time.

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.

But 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.

The past is a lote. Prune it and it grows.

The hottest year ever measured comes and goes. Then another. Then ten more, almost every one of them among the hottest in recorded history. The seas rise. The year’s clock breaks.

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.

We are not, one of Adam’s papers proves, wired to see slow, background change, when something bright and colorful is waving in our faces. You can watch the hour hand, Mimi finds, hold your eyes on it all around the circle of the clock, and never once see it move.

That’s the job of consciousness, to turn Now into Always, to mistake what is for what was meant to be.

that goal of ten thousand years of history, the thing the human brain craves above all else and nature will die refusing to give: convenience. Ease is the disease

a horror inseparable from hope.

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.

No one can ever be abandoned, anywhere, ever. Full-out, four-alarm, symphonic narrative mayhem plays out all around them. She has no idea, and there’s no way he can let her know. Civilized yards are all alike. Every wild yard is wild in its own way.

those recent yesterdays when tomorrow seemed the answer to everything a human might ever want.

Blake: A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees. Auden: A culture is no better than its woods.

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.

Honduran rosewood. Hinton’s oak in Mexico. St. Helena gumwood. Cedars from the Cape of Good Hope. Twenty species of monster kauri, ten feet thick and clear of branches for a hundred feet and more. An alerce in southern Chile, older than the Bible but still putting forth seeds. Half the species in Australia, southern China, a belt across Africa. The alien life-forms of Madagascar that occur nowhere else on the planet.

Borneo, Papua New Guinea, the Moluccas, Sumatra: the most productive ecosystems on Earth, giving way to oil palm plantations.

acid rain, rust, canker, root rot, drought, invasives, failed agriculture, boring insects, rogue fungi, desertification

the vine-covered trunks, the wildest engines of life on Earth. Species clog every surface, reviving that dead metaphor at the heart of the word bewilderment.

All is fringe and braid and pleat, scales and spines.

each one a product of the Earth thinking aloud.

Most flavors of tree have their own pollinators. The flip side of this insane diversity is dispersal.

what good it does to save a species without all the epiphytes, fungi, pollinators, and other symbionts that, in the trenches of the day, give a species its real home. But what’s the alternative?

Pareidolia

She has come across the same stories everywhere she collects seeds—in the Philippines, Xinjiang, New Zealand, East Africa, Sri Lanka. People who, in an instant, sink sudden roots and grow bark. Trees that, for a little while, can still speak, lift up their roots, and move.

The odds are nothing compared to the first two great rolls of the cosmic dice: the one that took inert matter over the crest of life, and the one that led from simple bacteria to compound cells a hundred times larger and more complex. Compared to those first two chasms, the gap between trees and people is nothing at all

No one suspects how hard it is to hold another’s gaze for more than three seconds. A quarter minute and they’re in agony—introverts and extroverts, dominants and submissives alike. Scopophobia hits them all—fear of seeing and being seen.

Deserts of infinite boredom punctuated by peaks of freakish intensity.

“Yes! And what do all good stories do?” There are no takers. Neelay holds up his arms and extends his palms in the oddest gesture. In another moment, leaves will grow from his fingers. Birds will come and nest in them. “They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t.”

The Secret Forest.

“Seven million users will need to discover the rules of a dangerous new place. To learn what the world will bear, how life really works, what it wants from a player in exchange for continuing to play. Now, that’s a game. A whole new Age of Exploration. What more adventure could you ask for?”

Imagine: a game with the goal of growing the world, instead of yourself.

The freedom to be equal to the terrors of the day.

In a world of perfect utility, we, too, will be forced to vanish.

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.

This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.

Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear.

The cause is a work in progress. Justice for the ninety-nine percent. The jailing of financial traitors and thieves. An eruption of fairness and decency on all continents. The overthrow of capitalism. A happiness not born of rape and greed.

The focus has changed, over the years. But it’s the same basic problem: What keeps us from seeing the obvious?” Douglas puts his hand to the brass bull’s horn. “And? What does?” “Mostly other people.”

“There’s a more interesting part of the question.” “How some people manage to see . . . ?” “Exactly.”

How many trees equal one person? Can an impending catastrophe justify small, pointed violence?

The world had six trillion trees, when people showed up. Half remain. Half again more will disappear, in a hundred years. And whatever enough people say that all these vanishing trees are saying is what, in fact, they say.

Durkheim, Foucault, crypto-normativity: How reason is just another weapon of control. How the invention of the reasonable, the acceptable, the sane, even the human, is greener and more recent than humans suspect.

Legs, Neelay suspects, may be where evolution went berserk.

tree communication, forest intelligence, fungal networks

The tree fountains up once more into a crown. The upward-wavering twigs reach for the light, for things hidden in plain sight. Branches fork and thicken in the air. At this speed, he sees the tree’s central aim, the math behind the phloem and xylem, the intermeshed and seething geometries, and that thin layer of living cambium swelling outward.

As Toynbee once wrote, “Man achieves civilization . . . as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort.”

Sustainable future. They don’t want a tree woman to keynote their gathering. They want a master illusionist. A sci-fi novelist. The Lorax. Maybe a colorful faith healer, with epiphytes for hair.

When a person makes a choice, so much happens by night, underground, or just out of sight that the chooser is the last to know.

“You can’t see what you don’t understand. But what you think you already understand, you’ll fail to notice.”

It’s the lone species of the only genus in the sole family in the single order of the solitary class remaining in a now-abandoned division that once covered the earth—a living fossil three hundred million years old

The Secret Forest.

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. . . .

Maytenus, Syzygium, Ziziphus.

He stuck to his silence. Then they told him what he was facing: domestic terrorism—attempting to influence the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion—punishable under the Terrorist Penalties Enhancement Act, the apparatus of a whole new security state.

“When the world was ending the first time, Noah took all the animals, two by two, and loaded them aboard his escape craft for evacuation. But it’s a funny thing: He left the plants to die. He failed to take the one thing he needed to rebuild life on land, and concentrated on saving the freeloaders!”

Noah and his kind didn’t believe that plants were really alive. No intentions, no vital spark. Just like rocks that happened to get bigger.

there’s a tree for every purpose under heaven. Their chemistry is astonishing. Waxes, fats, sugars. Tannins, sterols, gums, and carotenoids. Resin acids, flavonoids, terpenes. Alkaloids, phenols, corky suberins. They’re learning to make whatever can be made. And most of what they make we haven’t even identified.

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.

The ‘environment’ is alive—a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other. Love and war can’t be teased apart. Flowers shape bees as much as bees shape flowers. Berries may compete to be eaten more than animals compete for the berries. A thorn acacia makes sugary protein treats to feed and enslave the ants who guard it. Fruit-bearing plants trick us into distributing their seeds, and ripening fruit led to color vision. In teaching us how to find their bait, trees taught us to see that the sky is blue. Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been Homo sapiens.

Trees are doing science. Running a billion field tests. They make their conjectures, and the living world tells them what works. Life is speculation, and speculation is life. What a marvelous word! It means to guess. It also means to mirror.

Trees stand at the heart of ecology, and they must come to stand at the heart of human politics

To see green is to grasp the Earth’s intentions.

Tachigali versicolor, this one flowers only once.

The common name for Tachigali versicolor is the suicide tree.

“You were instructed,” the tracking clerk tells him. “Do not try to cross your geo-fence.” “I understand. I’m sorry.” “Next time we’ll have to take action.” “It was an accident. Human failing.” His field of expertise. “Reasons don’t matter. We’ll send force next time.”

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.

the world is full of welfares that must come even before your own kind.

alien agents doing things beyond the narrow consciousness of humans.

What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.

Many living things choose their own season. Maybe most of them.

We’re the ones who need repairing. Trees remember what we’ve forgotten. Every speculation must make room for another. Dying is life, too.

The single best thing you can do for the world. It occurs to her: The problem begins with that word world. It means two such opposite things. The real one we cannot see. The invented one we can’t escape.

“Here’s to unsuicide,”

Jungle in an upscale suburb: it’s up there with child-molesting. The neighbors have come by on three separate occasions to ask if there’s anything wrong.

Who would have thought the foundations of society would be so shaken by a little runaway green?

The law is simply human will, written down. The law must let every acre of living Earth be turned into tarmac, if such is the desire of people. But the law lets all parties have their say.

What was the wood, what the tree out of which heaven and earth were fashioned? —RIG VEDA, 10.31.7

Terrorist Penalties Enhancement Act.

Suppressed updates and smart alerts chime at her. Notifications to flick away. Viral memes and clickable comment wars, millions of unread posts demanding to be ranked. Everyone around her in the park is likewise busy, tapping and swiping, each with a universe in his palm. A massive, crowd-sourced urgency unfolds in Like-Land, and the learners, watching over these humans’ shoulders, noting each time a person clicks, begin to see what it might be: people, vanishing en masse into a replicated paradise.

Nothing needs to start from scratch. There’s so much digital germplasm already in the public domain.

New theories, new offspring, and more evolving species, all of them sharing a single goal: to find out how big life is, how connected, and what it would take for people to unsuicide.

Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory.

Life is speculation, and these new speculations strain to come alive.

The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.

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.

More shades than there are names, as many shades as there are numbers, and all of them green.

She talks about Ta-ne Mahuta, Yggdrasil, Jian-Mu, the Tree of Good and Evil, the indestructible Asvattha with roots above and branches below. Then she’s back at the original World Tree.

Five times at least, she says, the tree has been dropped, and five times it has resprouted from the stump. Now it’s toppling again, and what will happen this time is anybody’s guess.

gesturing toward the conifers. “It amazes me how much they say, when you let them. They’re not that hard to hear.”

Absorb everything. Eat every scrap of data you can find. Sort and compare more measurements than all of humanity in all of history has yet managed.

Soon enough, his learners will see across the planet. They’ll watch the vast boreal forests from space and read the species-teeming tropics from eye level. They’ll study rivers and measure what’s in them. They’ll collate the data of every wild creature ever tagged and map their wanderings. They’ll read every sentence in every article that every field scientist ever published. They’ll binge-watch every landscape that anyone has pointed a camera at. They’ll listen to all the sounds of the streaming Earth. They’ll do what the genes of their ancestors shaped them to do, what all their forebears have ever done themselves. They’ll speculate on what it takes to live and put those speculations to the test. Then they’ll say what life wants from people, and how it might use them.

Futures where our ancestors vanish before we even name them. Futures where our robot descendants use us for fuel, or keep us in infinitely entertaining zoos

Futures where humanity goes to its mass grave swearing it’s the only thing in creation that can talk.

But, of course, it’s not the world that needs saving. Only the thing that people call by the same name.

In a few short seasons, simply by placing billions of pages of data side by side, the next new species will learn to translate between any human language and the language of green things. The translations will be rough at first, like a child’s first guess. But soon the first sentences will start to come across, pouring out words made, like all living things, from rain and air and crumbled rock and light. Hello. Finally. Yes. Here. It’s us.

Phenomenal, to be such a small, weak, short-lived being on a planet with billions of years left to run.

Tomorrow the city landscapers will come again, and bring with them machines and all the irresistible force of law. And still, that won’t be the end of the story.

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.

Our home has been broken into. Our lives are being endangered. The law allows for all necessary force against unlawful and imminent harm.

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.

The New Metamorphosis, by the author of The Secret Forest.

The Greeks had a word, 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. . . .

Chemical semaphores home in over the air. Currents rise from the soil-gripping roots, relayed over great distances through fungal synapses linked up in a network the size of the planet. The signals say: A good answer is worth reinventing from scratch, again and again. They say: The air is a mix we must keep making. They say: There’s as much belowground as above. They tell her: Do not hope or despair or predict or be caught surprised. Never capitulate, but divide, multiply, transform, conjoin, do, and endure as you have all the long day of life. There are seeds that need fire. Seeds that need freezing. Seeds that need to be swallowed, etched in digestive acid, expelled as waste. Seeds that must be smashed open before they’ll germinate. A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.

sees and hears this by direct gathering

Once the real world ends. The next day dawns.

That’s the scary thing about men: get a few together with some simple machines, and they’ll move the world.

You have a right to be present. A right to attend. A right to be astonished.

The older the word, the more likely it is to be both useful and true.

the word tree and the word truth come from the same root.

The transported pieces of downed wood snake through the standing trees. Satellites high up above this work already take pictures from orbit. The shapes turn into letters complete with tendril flourishes, and the letters spell out a gigantic word legible from space: STILL

Nothing. Now everything. This, a voice whispers, from very nearby. This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.

the_overstory.txt · Last modified: 2018/06/03 11:38 by nik