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  • Writer's picturecherylmurfin

The Overstory. Or, Why I'm Suddenly Talking to Trees

If you’ve been following my posts, you might think I am a little obsessed with rain forests. I guess I am. It seems being cooped up this year has turned the forest into a haven for me, a watery green siren that regularly calls to me across the miles between Seattle and the Washington coast.

In days B.C. (before COVID) I might have driven the four hours to the Bogacheil, Quinalt, Queets, or Hoh rain forests once every year or two – or ten. In this first year A.C., I’ve made the trek five times already, and even sent my 75-year-old mother to those precious woods to find peace in their spacious calm.

I honestly wasn’t sure where the longing to regularly walk beside ancient trees came from – beyond an itch to move in unencumbered space as a balance to living in my 300-square foot shoebox. Then I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory.

The book won the 2019 Pulizer Prize. That fact makes me question my own literary acumen I must admit, because while the deep character development in the first half had me ripping through pages panting for more, the winding plot felt lecturey at times and a bit forced. The author undertakes the long-winded task of threading together nine unique storylines — including nine people and nine different threatened trees — and tying them off by the end in one big, sad, and environmentally sound knot.

The tome actually caused some controversy when it won the Pulizer, with some reviewers panning it as “brow-beating” and absurdly melodramatic at its tree-hugging heart. No spoiler alerts here but this is a story that grapples with environmental activism that meets the definition of terrorism under U.S. law.

Despite these petty annoyances, I simply cannot recall a book that has affected my daily thinking and lived experience in a more dramatic way. The Overstory has me doing just what its nay-sayers hate about it: on a near daily basis, I find myself melodramatically hugging trees. It has me thinking about trees more than COVID (consider that!) and feeling as sad about the pandemic that humanity has wrought on trees as I am for the millions who have died from our stubborn virus.

Just this last weekend, hiking the Hoh River Trail with my friend Curt – who lives in the equally teenie tiny apartment next to mine and thus also craves wide open space – I found myself needing to touch tree trunks. And just like field biologist Patricia Westerford, one of the book’s central characters, my pricked ears couldn’t help listening hard for the conversations passing branch and root and rhizomorph across the forest.

It’s not that I’ve never read about how trees communicate – I have. I’ve read a lot about the forest’s mesmerizing communication network. But somehow The Overstory took me beyond the scientific facts about plant intelligence, the interconnectedness of trees, and their incredible methods of survival, to a deeper, viscerally felt understanding of my personal interconnectedness with — and dangerous impact on — nature overall.

In case you want a great brush-up on how trees communicate, check out this video developed by the BBC that does a wonderful job explaining it:

Not half way through the novel I jumped on my wishlist at Elliott Bay, my favorite local bookstore, and added Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World. The Overstory is steeped in Wohlleben’s research.

Pulling from that research, the field biologist in the story lays out a litany of wowing truths about trees: that they take care of each other (even across type); that they communicate through earth and air; that they sense the presence other living beings and respond; that when they are dying they send legacy energy out to bolster other trees; that if they are sick they warn other trees; that they learn, over time, to save water, protect their young, solve problems.

What else do you want to call it,” the character asks. “Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.”

In reading The Overstory, trees changed before my eyes. They went from being landscape we need to conserve and protect to beings of vast intelligence. More than that: Left alone, a huge number of trees will live hundreds of years longer than any human, which to my mind (and Wohlleben’s research) make them more intelligent beings than us. If the planet survives it will be because of them, not us.

And just as I need human connection, The Overstory opened my eyes to the fact that trees need tree connection — and that we are in dangerous peril as a planet as we cut that connection off by our hunger for more – well, more of everything. As I walk down my neighborhood street and see tree after tree cut off from each other by asphalt and cement, or as I pass by acres and acres of clear cut on my way to the protected national parks system, I feel my heart constrict. I find myself apologizing as I pass. And, at the same time, asking myself how, in this second half of my life, I can make a difference.

Curt and I splashed among the trees for several hours in a downpour. There’s a reason it’s called the rain forest and a downpour is, to my mind, the very best way to experience the understory at the center of The Overstory.

For the first hour, we puddle jumped and tried to avoid muck and mud as humans tend to do. But at a turn midway through the hike, we passed an enormous redwood covered in wet, soft green moss, it’s roots webbing out across the path like veins in a body. In a flash I felt those roots reach up through my feet and turn me into a branch of that great organism. I moved my hand across the moss and felt a thousand sensations kiss my palm. I looked up the trunk and would swear the branches reached back down to me.

I felt a part of that very spot, integrated into that tree, grounded in the Earth. A part of, not apart.

I gave up on staying dry and let the water soak over the tops of my waterproof shoes. I welcomed the water trickling down my back from my exposed coat neck. After more than a year of such disconnection I felt fully networked – fully present, fully alive, able to hear and eager to listen.

Each of us must carry on our own dialogue with the planet. I am deeply grateful for the conversation re-start that The Overstory was for me. I am grateful that it affirmed for me that I am on the right path as I try to reduce my footprint on the planet by living smaller, and in its lecturey way requested that I do more. I started with a donation to The Nature Conservany – which is NOT mentioned in the book but has a good track record.

I’m not suggesting everyone else do the same. We’ve each got your own path through the woods.

But I do recommend The Overstory in the hope it broadens your personal connection with a precious and threatened life force.

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