Trees Are People Too

As I approach my seventh decade I am more aware than ever of the importance of connections and support. I see the need in young people as they search for a foothold in these challenging times. I am always looking for ways to strengthen our mutual support systems. So I perked right up when I read that scientists have now identified a “mother tree”. These large forest trees act as central hubs for vast below-ground mycorrhizal networks. The mother tree inoculates seedlings with beneficial fungi and supplies them with the nutrients they need to grow. That is just how I like to see my role in life!

Dorothy Maclean was describing the tree devas in the early 1970’s. Her words beckoned me to Findhorn, in Northern Scotland where she, with Peter and Eileen Cady, founded a spiritual commune. They spoke to the plant spirits and grew cabbages and onions as big as Volkswagens. Her book, To Hear the Angels Sing is still on my living room shelf. I never was able to hear those angels, but sometimes if I am paying close attention I can almost catch the grandmother white pine in my front yard sighing.

 A Cypress tree told Dorothy, “Great forests must flourish. We trees are, indeed, the skin of the earth, and a skin not only covers and protects, but passes through it the forces of life.” It makes sense to me.

 If I were to offer a one sentence summary of The Overstory, it might be this: We destroy ourselves when we destroy trees.                                                                                      


Why is it so hard for humans to understand that trees are sentient, living beings too? It took Jane Goodall’s years of work to convince the scientific world that chimpanzees, and thus all animals, feel pain, attachment and loss. She was, initially, dismissed for being an untrained woman, but then she earned a PhD and was still saying the same thing. Animals are capable of feeling and perception and responding. Continuing research and books like When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Masson have gone on to show, what anyone who has a beloved pet knows:  animals feel.  

Now we are discovering that trees breathe and eat and procreate and protect their children. They cooperate and sacrifice and rejoice much like we of the human species. Only their time frame is in the thousands of years rather than a single hundred. This makes them patient and farsighted visionaries. Not the strongest of human traits!

In the words of Douglas Pavlick,  one character from The Overstory, when he returns from fighting in Vietnam and he spots the miles and miles of clear cut mountain sides out west, “What the fuck went wrong with Mankind?” It is a question we cannot help asking again and again in this 500 page epic novel by Richard Powers as he follows nine main characters interacting with trees. Spoiler alert: there is no happy ever after here.

Nicholas Hoel is the first to be introduced. He is a descendant of Norwegian settlers who planted a grove of chestnut tree in Iowa. Only one of these trees survived the blight that devastated millions (MILLIONS) of trees down the east coast in the early 1900’s. For 200 years, the family maintained a tradition of taking a portrait of that remaining tree every year.

The chestnuts up North were majestic. But the Southern trees were Gods. In the Carolinas, boles older than America grew ten feet wide and a hundred and twenty feet tall.  By 1940 the fungus takes everything. Four billion trees vanish into myth.”

 Amelia Ma’s father came from Shanghai to Illinois where he planted Mulberry trees hoping to raise silk butterflies. She eventually leaves her corporate job in order to help trees survive.

Olivia Vandergriff, a young college student, survives being electrocuted by a faulty table lamp and hears a calling from the largest trees of all. Packing a few belongings into her car she heads west.

Of the many characters introduced in the early pages of this book the one who called to me was Patricia Westerford from Ohio.  Her father, an Ag extension agent, takes her on his work trips to the farms, teaching her about trees and botany. Shy and hard of hearing, she grows up listening to trees and then goes on to get a PhD and become a plant biologist and researcher. Later in the book she is professionally mocked and hounded out of her profession because of her research demonstrating that trees communicate with each other.

The author probably modeled this character after Suzanne Simard, an actual professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia who has tested theories about how trees communicate with other trees. Check out her TED talk! She used radioactive carbon to measure the flow and sharing of carbon between individual trees and species and discovered that Birch and Douglas Fir share carbon. It seems that birch trees receive extra carbon support from Douglas Firs in winter when the Birch trees lose their leaves and Birch trees reciprocate by supplying carbon to the shaded Fir trees in summer. That is communication and cooperation!

This book is, in many ways, a fictionalized version of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate ―Discoveries from A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, a German forester who describes the forest as an elaborate social network. He explains that trees are like human families where the parents live together with their children, communicate and care for them as they grow, share nutrients with the sick and weaker ones, and warn each other of imminent dangers.

He tells of a 400 or 500 year old stump that is still alive. How is this possible when it does not have a single leaf? It turns out that it was still supported and fed by its neighbors. How’s that for compassionate elder care?

Powers has taken these extraordinary, recently ‘discovered’ facts about trees, and constructed a human story that just might get our attention. We learn that trees are social creatures. You cannot study them alone, as a single tree. They are communicating, sharing, learning and caring for their young and their elders. Trees call animals to them for help and warn other trees of impending danger. If one of them is torn down the others mourn its loss.

We humans could do well to pay attention to what the trees have been telling us for millennium. “They are out there: creating the soil, cycling water, trading in nutrients, making water, building atmosphere. And feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.”  We are causing not only their destruction, but our own as well, as we destroy millions of plants and insects and animals and poison and heat up the entire planet until it will soon become  inhospitable to all life.  “That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen.”  Many characters and trees in this novel tell us: “Humans do not listen.”

Warning: Somewhere near the middle of this long read, I was overcome by a wave of grief. It is a similar feeling to the one I had at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia. It is the same sensation that comes over me when walking by a development site that has recently been clear cut and is piled high with the corpses of trees ripped from the earth. I am just so terribly sad.

What do we do with this sorrow for the suffering world? The people we meet in the book decide to take action in order to preserve one of the last wild stands of living Redwood giants. Can you believe that 97% of these have already been logged? They can grow to be 30 feet wide and 35 stories tall and contain an entire biosphere in their canopies.  If you read nothing else in Overstory, read the description of Olivia’s life 180 feet up in a giant mother tree. It is a wonder to see her living there in the style of Julia Butterfly Hill, rocked by the wind, picking berries high up in the branches as the lumber companies try to dislodge her.

The Overstory is a long, sometimes winding, often dense read but it is almost a holy piece of literature. It must not be overlooked. Richard Powers has written a haunting masterpiece. Read it…. and weep.

All quotes, unless otherwise stated, are from The Overstory by Richard Powers