Making the invisible visible

Closing the gap between human and nonhuman

“There is a world alongside ours,” writes Richard Powers in the opening pages of his latest book, The Overstory. “Vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.”

This world is no construct of the imagination, no occult matrix, rather something so familiar as to be—as Powers suggests—invisible. It is the forest. It is any one of the 900-odd varieties of forest that have been classified by humans, covering four billion hectares of the planet. From the tropics almost to the poles, forests are, says Powers, “Earth’s chief way of being.”

The genius of The Overstory is that the story itself is a forest. Everything is connected, everything signals to other entities, human and nonhuman, in the narrative terrain. The whole thing breathes, and breathes life.

Powers has said that it took him two years and hundreds of books to learn what he needed to know about the trees and forests he casts as characters in the book. And they are such surprising characters. “No strangeness stranger than the strangeness of living things,” writes Powers—and he populates the pages of The Overstory with a gorgeous trove of wonders.

Consider the Arbre du Ténéré, a solitary acacia in Niger what was the only tree for 400 km in any direction in the sands of Niger. So sacred was this tree that all Touarag camel caravaniers gathered around the tree before crossing the desert. In 1973, this “living lighthouse” was struck down by a drunk truck driver.

Consider Hura crepitans, the dynamite tree, which launches seeds from its exploding fruit at 260 km/h.

Consider the clonal aspens of Fishlake National Forest—47,000 trees that constitute a single genetic individual that occupies 43 ha of land in Utah, is estimated to weigh 6000 tonnes and may be a million years old. This extraordinary organism stopped growing 30 years ago due to human encroachment and interference.

Or reflect on the Achuar—the people of the palm tree—who “sing to their gardens and forests, but secretly, in their heads, so only the souls of the plants can hear. Trees are their kin, with hopes, fears, and social codes, and their goal as people has always been to charm and inveigle green things, to win them in symbolic marriage.”

Such is the strangeness and wonder of forests that when Daniel Rolander, one of Carl Linnaeus’s young apostles of the new system of classifying life, attempted an inventory of the forests of Suriname, the scale of the biodiversity he encountered drove him mad. One could almost go divinely mad devouring the crystalline detail in The Overstory—or perhaps come to one’s senses.

What Powers is attempting with The Overstory is what he calls “unblinding”—opening our eyes to the forest world. “No one sees trees,” laments one of the book’s protagonists. “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.”

To render the invisible visible is a demanding quest, and Powers achieves it with brilliance. There’s a reason he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. It is a rare writer who can meld scientific detail and dramatic narrative into a seamless fabric. In the hands of a lesser author, a character about to deliver scientific information might just as well announce, “Stand by for a lecture.” That never happens with Powers.

In interviews, Powers has said that writing The Overstory changed his life. Forests stopped being green wallpaper and became a living presence. He moved to the Great Smoky Mountains as a result of writing the book. He said that upon finishing his previous books (this is his 12th) the urge was always to move on to something different and new. “Now I just want to walk, look, listen, breathe, and write this same book, again and again, from different aspects and elevations, with characters as old and large as I am able to imagine.”

No doubt the popularity of The Overstory arises in part because there is a growing recognition that without a kind of religious reconnection to the natural world, humanity is in deep trouble. Powers likes to point out that the word “religion” comes from root words that mean “re-tie.” An apt word, then, for the contemporary ecological turn. The question for Powers is whether the new desire for connection can overturn the entrenched ideology of separation that lies at the heart of consumer economies, and is one of the West’s cultural foundations. It’s significant, is it not, that the Judeo-Christian origin story has to do with existential estrangement as a result of misappropriating a tree’s gifts?

How, then, should we live with forests? In 1972 US legal scholar Christopher Stone proposed a radical idea in an essay with the title “Should Trees have Standing?”—an essay which argued that trees, forests, rivers and the like could and should have legal standing. (The legal personhood of the Whanganui River and Te Urewera can be seen in part as Stone’s legacy.)

In that essay, Stone asks: “What is it within us that gives us this need not just to satisfy basic biological wants, but to extend our wills over things, to objectify them, to make them ours, to manipulate them, to keep them at a psychic distance?” What, indeed. Why the obsession with mastery? Sour grapes at God for expelling us from the garden?

“What is needed is a myth,” concluded Stone, and there is something mythic and grand, but never grandiose, in this book. A myth to close the gap between humans and nonhumans is Powers’ project—his arc, his overstory.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader for whom Powers has triggered a resurgence of fascination, admiration and love for forests, our invisible neighbours. He writes of one of the book’s human characters, a forest ecologist: “The wind wafts through the window, smelling of compost and cedar. The scent triggers an old, deep longing that seems to have no purpose. The woods are calling, and she must go.”

It is a call I hear, too, and am glad for it.

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