Column: Humanity is waging an inexplicable war on trees. It’s not going to work out for either side


Do we ever really pause to think of a tree as its own self? Not as a picturesque forest backdrop to our vacation selfies, not as lumber for a deck, nor as the makings of a campfire — but a tree as a living thing with billions more of its kind, that, all together, undergird our human existence, and, in fact, make it possible?

No, it’s not likely that we do. We treat thousand-year-old groves as if they were last season’s growth of Christmas trees. We guard our money, we put alarms on our cars, but for the forests that clean the air and enrich the soil, we just mow them down like so much field corn. We post no guards on old-growth woods, and so timber cartels simply hack down and steal trees that are older than the printed word, cut them up and sell them for millions of dollars on a black market for rare wood, like illegal weapons or poached ivory.

Richard Powers lived among the trees for his new novel, “The Overstory.” It sets the scale of human life against the magnificence of our arboreal heritage, with characters who come to think “arborescently” about trees as fellow creatures who can be the saving of humanity; but first, we have to save them.

It's a novel about people and trees, so I’ll ask you about the seed, the germination for this book.

It actually started here in California. I was living in Palo Alto, and it's quite a crazy place. On the one hand, you're right in the heart of Silicon Valley, and up on the other side was the Santa Cruz Mountains, a second-growth redwood forest. And I would head up there to escape Silicon Valley.

I guess I was walking up there under the redwoods one day, and it's a spectacular thing. I think anybody who's walked even in a second-growth redwood forest feels that sense that it's like being in an enormous, enormous cloister.

And I came across an uncut tree, and I had been marveling at these redwoods. What a redwood can do in a hundred years is incredible, but when you let them go a thousand years, it seems like something from another world altogether.

In front of this thousand-year-old tree which was as wide as a house and as tall as a football field, I had a sense of what these mountains must have looked like before we got to them. They were cut down to build San Francisco a couple of times, and it occurred to me that Silicon Valley was down there because these forests were up here. There was some kind of link that had never been really made explicit to me. That long relationship, that dependency, and the war between people and trees, felt very, very powerful and very dramatic.

And I felt the need to tell that story, a story that I hadn't really seen treated in literary fiction before.

When you think that here are these 3 trillion creatures that we share the world with, and they helped to make the atmosphere and they created the soil and they filter our water, and they’re enormous long-lived things with great subtlety of behavior and they support entire ecosystems — and yet we take them for granted at best.

It's really amazing how essential they have been to our stay here on Earth, and how essential they will be to our continuance here on Earth. But for that, we need to learn how to see them.

In order to tell this story, the trees themselves had to become characters and presences — not just as these inanimate objects, but as things with agency, things with purpose and things with subtle behavior.

More than that, I think it's the story about these nine people who have to learn they are not exceptional. They are not apart from the rest of creation.

The shocking thing that I read in here was that “Potemkin forest” idea, that people who own forests leave a very thin strip along a highway so motorists would think they're driving through a forest. But behind it, the owner had killed all of the trees — cut them down.

That's a very common practice throughout the Northwest, actually throughout the country. They're referred to in different ways; one of the names is “vista curtains” — a little bit cynical, but it becomes a moment of conversion for one of my characters, who somehow discovers what's just behind that little scrim, and realizes what's going on.

Here are these 3 trillion creatures that we share the world with ... and yet we take them for granted at best.

But, more than that, it becomes a kind of metaphor for the way that we're treating the world, that kind of “so far, so good,” or the unseen “it may look good or sustainable from where we're standing, but, in fact, dig a little bit and there's a terrible cost.”

The first secretary of the Interior to Ronald Reagan, James Watt, said you have to be a “steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations. I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” There’s a sense abroad that there is no problem with using this all up as quickly as we need it.

I remember when Watt said that, and how strange and mind-boggling it was. It ties into this broader historical trend that you're mentioning, and Watt made me think about, which is that of all the myths and legends of the world that we could have grown out of, and that we could have made foundational for ourselves, we got the one that said “be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth and have dominion over it” — and it’s subdued.

We have dominion. But at this late date, we're beginning to understand that this program of mastery, this program of control, this program of human exceptionalism isn't working. And these externalized costs that we've put off for so long are now coming back.

We thought that battle was over; we thought we won that one and we were the last one standing. Well, now we're finding out that we're not.

You write about how the law regards the natural system. There are a couple of bits I’d like you to read.

“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. ... Wilderness is gone. Forest has succumbed to chemically sustained silviculture. Four billion years of evolution, and that's where the matter will end. Politically, practically, emotionally, intellectually: Humans are all that count, the final word. You cannot shut down human hunger. You cannot even slow it. Just holding steady costs more than the race can afford.”

The paradox that you present in the book is that our own hunger, our own success is going to kill us.

My eyes were opened to this while researching for the book. I came across an essay that turns out to be a very famous one in the history of environmental law, that I hadn't known about, by Christopher Stone, called “Should Trees Have Standing?”

He makes the rather extraordinary point that I had never considered before, which is, in order to bring a lawsuit, you have to have a human being who's lost money, or who has been injured in some way, so only humans have legal standing. If somebody was dumping toxins into a river, the only way you could sue is if there were a human being downstream that was suffering from this. You couldn't sue on behalf of anything in the river. You couldn't sue on behalf of the river, you couldn't sue on behalf of the soil underneath the river.

You can only sue on behalf of humans. And that's the problem, you see, because if you have a legal system where only humans have standing, then there’s this entire other question of being in the biological world: How are we going to get along in the biological world if we don't recognize anything else except us as damage or as deserving of standing?

The Patriot Act passed after the 9/11 attacks allows what it might call environmental defense crimes to be prosecuted as domestic terrorism.

And one of my characters suffers directly from this as a result. It's interesting to think about that somehow being as frightening and as scary to the mind-set of the present as any other attack on our safety and well-being. But it's also a testimony to this reluctance that we have to give up this notion that there is a hierarchy of power and we're at the top of that hierarchy.

That's somehow of a piece with what we're doing now, in the biggest retrenchment of environmentalism in 100 years. Acts and protections that it took enormous acts of concerted political will over the course of half a century are being rolled back week by week and month by month.

This is the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

That's right. That's right. There are moments in history that show that when people who have wielded great unilateral power start to lose it, if they get a little desperate, they start accelerating this program of domination ... that they had in place.

And I think that's what we're seeing with the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris accord, and the EPA just rolling back the Clean Water, Clean Air acts. Who would have thought, a year and a half ago, two years ago, that a national monument could be reduced by 85% and returned to the same [mineral] extraction processes that it was designed to prevent?

But here we are.

In a very curious place, we saw an iteration of what trees are and how they relate to one another and ourselves. That was in James Cameron’s film “Avatar,” where there was a tree that had not only symbolic and religious importance to the people on another planet. It had a literal, biological life-and-death meaning, as trees do to us here, too.

We just don’t see it. I should mention that, that Cameron's film, many people have pointed out the resemblance between that and a great Ursula K. Le Guin’s book called “The Word for World is Forest.” And what I love about that book is that it goes where literary fiction is afraid to tread. These other creatures, it puts them on par with us.

In books like Le Guin’s and in films like Cameron’s, our 100% dependence on green things is made explicit, and the story needs to take them in as protagonists. We don’t like this idea that somehow we aren't the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul. We love this idea that somehow we can make the terms and the world can accommodate us.

And we're learning that we cannot force a mastery over things that have their own way of being and their own needs and their own internal need and rhythm.

And yet what we wage is a very unfair fight. How do these creatures, these sentient, growing creatures, stand up against us? You've got a passage in the book where one of your characters talks about a Florida bald cypress tree one and a half millennia older than Christianity — killed by a flicked cigarette.

Yeah, the battle does seem a little one-sided, and in the book, five of the nine characters come together in a kind of collective action to try to save that remaining [tree heritage].

The numbers are astonishing. They may be from 3 to 5% of the original American forests that have not been cut. The four great forests of this continent, all of which were supposed to be inexhaustible, are now gone. What’s left is regrowth. These creatures can’t defend themselves, and we have to be their proxies. We have to be their ears and eyes and legs and conscience.

Did your thinking change from the beginning of working on the book to when you finished it? How did it change?

The book changed me in so many ways. It literally changed my life. I've been working on the book for a total of five years, a little bit longer than five years, and I've been reading for at least two years, about the tiny, tiny pockets of old growth that are left in the country.

And I went to visit them. I'm no stranger to walks in the woods, but to walk through regrowth up into these ancient old growth forests, and to see what an Eastern forest looked like, not only before Europeans came but almost all the way back to the Ice Age, 9,000 years ago — my jaw, I couldn’t stop looking. I could not stop looking.

It got under my skin and I ended up buying a house and moving down there just to be close. And that's where I've been living for the last two and a half years.

I grew up with a story you tell in the book. You call it the “ghost squirrel.” I was told when I was little that there was a time in this country when a squirrel could go from branch to branch, from tree to tree, across the breadth of what became the United States of America, without ever touching the ground. We know it’s not true now. Was it ever true?

I don't know if it was ever true that you could go from Maine to California, because there are the plains in the middle, which were somewhat treeless even before Europeans. But I've seen formulations of that story in different ways. I actually saw a claim that you could go a great distance down the Appalachians, hundreds of miles, maybe a thousand, just on the American chestnut.

At one time, the American chestnut accounted for about one in every four trees. People have called the American chestnut the perfect tree — big, beautiful, it's wood was fantastic for all kinds of things. Around 1904, it was brought into this country, on plantings from Asia that people wanted to introduce here, a fungus that took hold. It was first spotted in New York around just after the beginning of the century, around 1904, and by 1940, almost every mature chestnut in America was gone.

And this is happening again and again and again right now. When I lived in the [California] Peninsula, it was sudden oak death, and throughout the West, it's the pine bark beetles. Where I am in the Smokies, it's the hemlock woolly adelgid and the balsam woolly adelgid.

You think of John McPhee’s book, “The Control of Nature.”

That's what this book is about. What would it take to make us give up this idea that the best thing we could do is to manage and improve upon the living world and make it more conducive to this individualist, this commodity culture? How can we actually live here with an interdependence with all these other living things?

It's interesting to point out that we've never seen any patch of land grow back yet with the complexity and interdependence and species richness of an old growth forest. But if we stop thinking about them as commodities and start thinking about them as gifts — nobody wants to squander a gift, right? We take care of gifts.

So I think it's that turning the corner on what these things actually are that's going to be a necessary prerequisite for us.

How can people change their behavior? One character in your book goes to prison for his belief over this. People won't do that, in the main, but what can they do?

I've thought about this a lot, and I think there may be no greater influence on people — what we think, what we're willing to commit ourselves to — than what other people think, and what our group loyalty is. There is nothing that says our group can only believe in a certain kind of relationship with the non-human world. We need to get to a threshold where that's somehow intrinsically or socially a valuable thing to do, [where] we are praised and rewarded and lauded for having that attitude.

Nothing else can come until we unblind ourselves, until we begin to look at these other creatures in different ways. Step one, above anything else, is simply to see, to stand still and see what's all around you, and to think about the ways in which you are here by virtue of them.

What is that tree in front of you, doing what no other tree does? And that's where the revolution starts.

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