I have been letting my books lead my reading this year and a group of three books revolved around nature with trees at the center.
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier is the fictional story of a pioneer family trying to make a living by growing apples in Ohio. When tragedy strikes, the oldest son heads west and works for a seed saver who is feeding the foreign thirst for American trees. We get a glimpse of the destruction of the huge cedars and redwoods.
It is this destruction that forms the foundation for The Overstory, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the activists and scientists trying to save the last of the giant trees. I had avoided reading the book because I knew it would be a challenge to read about the deceit and devastation practiced in the name of progress that tried hard to wipe out the Native Americans, the buffalo and the ancient trees, just to name a few. I live amongst trees here at the farm, and my husband and I own ten acres of wooded land along a creek where we once considered building a house but may now just preserve it from development as long as we can.
Development and hunger for wood was devastating for the trees and for the activists who try to save them from humanity while trying to save humanity from themselves. It does not, as you might expect, go well for the trees or the people. Law enforcement was often brutal to the protesters when they refused to yield in ways I won’t describe here. Oregon Public Broadcasting has a radio series called Timber Wars produced in 2020 that lays out what they call the biggest environmental fight in the US.
The book is the story of ordinary human beings who encounter trees in ways that change their perspectives on the world. Powers masterfully tells their stories from their childhood through adulthood through the perspective of their journey both to and then with trees at the center. Along the way, we learn the stories of trees in America including references the Johnny Appleseed, chestnut blight and seed saving. It did make a nice companion to At the Edge of the Orchard although trees did not form the centerpiece of Chevalier’s novel with its focus on family and relationships. But she describes the huge stump where the westerners held dances and it is surprising to think any giants were left for Powers’ characters to save.
There may have been an undercurrent of hope in the story that ultimately the trees had a longer timeline than human beings but it couldn’t cut through the sense of grief that permeated the book. I don’t want to discourage you from reading it as I think it was the best book I’ve read this year.
The third book of the trio was The Forest Unseen, David George Haskell’s reporting from the field where he tended a 3 meter mandala in the woods of western Tennessee for a year. Haskell, a biologist, takes us deep into nature with his observations of this world, from the tops of the trees to the leaf mulch and below. He uses this small patch of the earth to lead to detailed and engaging explorations of the natural world. Haskell covered some of the topics the Powers did and lamented man’s impact on nature although his book is a bit more joyful.
These books focused primarily on the United States with brief forays into the rest of the world. Perhaps nowhere is the destruction of trees more devastating than in Brazil. A recent article in The Guardian described the increase in rainforest deforestation. In this case, it is linked to political leadership with the new leadership trying to reverse the destruction. Trees may be playing the long game but they are losing in the short term and taking us with them, I’m afraid.