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.

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