Hug a tree

In awe of the magnificence of trees, the wonder of the natural world, of the recognition that our lives are but a flash in the night in the existence of trees.

How much thought have you ever really given to trees before?

Probably not much. Or at least I hadn’t. Trees are just there, aren’t they?

Until they aren’t.

It is only in the last year, with the Brazilian Amazon being cut down at a record rate, the western United States on fire, and somehow “firenados” becoming a thing, that our collective thoughts have turned to trees and just how important they are.

When you think about it, it’s actually somewhat amazing the degree to which trees have been demonized. That’s right — trees aren’t simply cast aside or left uncredited for their immense contribution to humanity, there seems to actually be something of a hatred, it would seem, for trees. Or, perhaps more precisely, a sense of sneering superiority.

At least in much of American society.

For whole decades in the US, anyone with the slightest concern for the environment was labeled a “treehugger.” The Trump followers use words like “snowflake” and “libtard” now, but “treehugger” was long the slur of choice.

Which is why it was so refreshing when I stepped inside a wonderful little used bookshop in Hood River, Oregon the other day to find them selling “Treehugger” bumperstickers. If I had a car, I’d have bought it.

“Treehugger” has now been reclaimed by liberals, or by anyone who cares about the environment — which in America, at least, is the same thing — as a good thing, because why shouldn’t it be? After all, what’s weirder — caring about trees or castigating people for caring about trees?

Similarly, the idea of the “creepy” or “haunted” forest is a longstanding trope in literature, film, and real life (just google the “Aokigahara” forest in Japan to see what I mean).

And forests certainly can be scary. I’ve been on plenty of hikes where my lack of planning has meant that I’m hiking in near-total darkness in a forest. The lack of people, the seeming sameness of the forest, the ease of getting lost, is chilling.

Trees, it would seem, have long needed an advocate to share just how wonderful they are.

Richard Powers may just be that advocate.

I don’t think you can read “The Overstory” and not have your perspective entirely changed by it. It’s hard to call to mind a book that has given me a greater appreciation for what’s right in front of me.

Before reading this, I wondered what in the world “The Overstory” could actually be about. A novel about trees? It just sounded so outlandish. Why? How? To what end?

This, though, is a book with epic scope. I don’t believe that Powers is seeking to merely tell a good story here, I think he singlehandedly is wanting to change our perspectives in order to save trees and, in doing so, help save the world.

There are nine central characters in “The Overstory” and at times it’s somewhat hard to keep track of them all as the first 150 pages (“Roots”) delve into these characters in standalone chapters. Of course, much like a tree, things start to come together and characters connect.

I don’t really want to say much more than that because I’d hate to give anything away. I will say that another way this book changed my perspective was regarding the use of property destruction as a valid form of protest (not like trashing a small business because the police killed someone, here the destruction is very clearly linked). In this, “The Overstory” reminds me of the excellent 2017 Paul Schrader film “First Reformed,” which you should put on your watchlist immediately.

In the face of corporate destruction of the natural environment, is peaceful protest really effective? Is violence against such corporate destruction not perfectly valid and, even, necessary?

“The Overstory,” like “First Reformed,” forces you ask those questions. But anger and frustration aren’t the primary feelings you’re left with after finishing this extraordinary book. Instead, you can’t help but feel awe.

In awe of the magnificence of trees, the wonder of the natural world, of the recognition that our lives are but a flash in the night in the existence of trees.

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