Maple leaves and reflected sky

I have fewer than 50 pages left in Richard Powers’ Bewildermentt, which is breaking my heart in profound and complex ways. The human and natural worlds are troubled and broken–deeply wounded and traumatized–and yet both are the site of great joy. Powers’ novel somehow captures all these emotions–the whole human gamut, from ecstasy to rage–while expressing the cosmic loneliness of these almost-end times.

Does it seem extreme to call these days apocalyptic? In some ways, Powers’ book is dystopian: he takes the political realities of the present moment–including climate denialism, anti-science conspiracy theories, and a xenophobic slide toward authoritarianism–and exaggerates them only slightly, which makes their impact that much more devastating. The world of Powers’ novel isn’t exactly the present moment, but it certainly could be.

Robin, the child protagonist who feels too much, has an empathetic connection with endangered creatures great and small. Robin embodies the limited emotional options for those of us living with open-eyes in an environmentally devastated world. Do we rage against the dying of the light as species disappear and the planet warms? Or do we ecstatically embrace the wondrous creatures who somehow, miraculously remain, endangered but still surviving (for now)?

If you knew the planet was dying, would you rage or grieve or make the most of your remaining time…or would you oscillate among all three? If you chose the latter, would that make you crazy and disturbed–a person in need of treatment–or one of the only humans on the planet who is clear-eyed and sane?


Overstory

Over the waning days of summer, I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a novel about trees and interconnection. It’s a big, fat book, and I read it slowly, at a tree’s pace: page by page and leaf by leaf. Trees outlive us–at least the largest, long-lived species do–and thus they have much to teach us about time, patience, and the virtues of rootedness.

Looking up

This past March, one of the tall pine trees that fringe our backyard fell directly onto our neighbors’ house after a heavier-than-usual snowfall. Last month, we had an arborist come to look at our remaining trees: not just the tall pines out back, but also a slowly-dying ash near our back door. This particular arborist had never seen the pine that fell, but he examined the slivers of stump that remain. Could we have predicted, we asked, whether this tree would fall, or in which direction? The arborist suggested the tree’s trunk was sound, but its root system had been compromised by some nearby driveway work. But could construction work done nearly two decades ago have an impact on a tree today, J asked, incredulous, and the arborist said yes, of course. Trees live according to a different timeline than we do, our hurried scurrying looking like a blur when viewed from their ponderous perspective.

Five-fingered maple

Trees can teach us much about steadfastness and resilience, but we need to slow ourselves down to hear them. The most resilient trees tap their roots deep, while the wide-spreaders hug shallow soil and are easily uprooted. My mind branches widely and wildly with distraction, and I quickly grow discouraged by superficial trifles: I’d do better with a deeper taproot. Trees and the people who understand them best know a decade is the mere wink of an arboreal eye, and for a tree centuries pass like days. Marriage is easy, my grandfather used to say; only the first fifty years are hard. This is a statement to make a tree chuckle.

Dying ash

The arborist we hired will cut down the dying ash in our backyard, as it is growing too close to both our house and our neighbors’ garage, and he will grind the stump to sawdust, as its roots are far from any nearby trees. But the arborist suggested we cut but not grind the stump of the fallen pine, as its roots are tangled up with its neighbors’. I close my eyes and imagine the grief of trees: when one falls, his fellow forest-friends tremble down to their subterranean toes.

The Overstory is a fat book because it tells a complex web of a tale. The stories in the initial section are branched like roots, and later, they connect together in subtle and surprising ways: an ecosystem of individuals whose roots touch and tangle. The whole time I was reading the book, I found myself looking up on my daily dog-walks: who, exactly, are these quiet creatures who live their woody lives in our midst, silent and swaying, overhead and too often ignored?