The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They CommunicateDiscoveries from A Secret World

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Tree Time and Mortality in the Eyes of Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Powers, and Ursula K. Le Guin

1.
Trees tell time when they cease to live. Concentric bands show up clean and countable, the index of so many wet and dry seasons past, but only when the end has been determined, when no more rings will be added. The tree is always recording, but it takes chopping it down to render the story legible, to make counting count for us. Dendrochronology—the science of studying time by way of trees—is a postmortem practice encircled by beginnings and endings.

We need an end to make sense of what came before. This, according to Frank Kermode’s classic study of literature The Sense of an Ending (1967) is what makes apocalyptic narratives so appealing: An ending provides the frame in which to plot out our concerns. Feeling ourselves on the way to something is infinitely preferable to being simply out here, somewhere. It is partly this “sense of an ending” that makes climate change so difficult to conceptualize and to confront in narrative terms. Climate change, after all, should not be thought of in terms of an end but rather on the order of many ends, ends with varying temporalities and which will unevenly affect life distributed around the globe along different axes of power and privilege. Disaster movies notwithstanding, climate change poses what literary critic Rob Nixon calls a “representational challenge” to narrative. We need new narrative modes, Nixon says, for registering the “slow violence” of environmental collapse, the many endings resistant to—or unavailable to—attention-grabbing denouement. At least one major critic and novelist, Amitav Ghosh, has argued that this task is anathema to literary fiction all together. Climate change, Ghosh argues in The Great Derangement, is beyond the conventional novel form.

Yet the Anthropocene, one of the most important terms to emerge from recent discussions regarding climate change, attempts to overcome this narrative impasse. However one feels about the term—disagreements abound regarding when it started, about what we should really call it instead, and about whether it is a geological epoch at all—the notion of the Anthropocene tries to force in some of the narrative parameters that we so crave. As many have pointed out, the Anthropocene suggests not only a beginning to the human story but also—projecting forward—an end. The qualifications for a geological epoch indicate that a scientist should be able to discern the stratigraphic rock boundaries of the discrete period in question. Because every epoch previous to the current Holocene began and ended long before humans existed—and because the Anthropocene itself is still in formation—we are for the first time tasked with considering an open rather than closed chapter in the book of the earth. As historian of science Robert V. Davis explains, if the Anthropocene is to be accepted, it is only because, in the future, “retrospection will show the present as having been shaped geologically by man.” The many smaller ends of climate change slip past our narrative conventions, but the Anthropocene promises—however bleakly—that the end is foreseeable, at least from some future finality looking back. This despite the fact that, as philosopher Claire Colebrook points out, there may be no humans left to do the looking.

Some of the strongest material evidence for the Anthropocene comes from studies of ice core samples, but at least one instance of dendrochronology helps make sense of the epoch’s strangely anticipatory narrative logic. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) depicts film’s most famous scene of tree ring reading by way of perhaps the world’s most famous species of trees. Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) travel north from San Francisco to the John Muir forest, where they stand amidst Redwoods. When asked by Scottie what she is thinking, Madeleine responds, “Of all the people who have born and died while the trees went on living.” Scottie responds professorially: “Their true name is Sequoia sempervirens, always green, ever living.” “I don’t like them,” Madeleine says. “Why?” “Knowing I have to die,” she answers. The pair walk from the living trees to a nearby cross section of a tree that is suspended by a sign, a “Redwood round.” The camera pans across the tree cross-section slowly enough for us to read the white flags which mark historical events at various rings: “1215 Magna Carta Signed,” “1776 Declaration of Independence,” etc. At this point a swell of eerie music prepares us for what Madeline says next, as she reaches her hand to the wood. Pointing to one and then another ring just inside the inner edge of the round, she says, “Somewhere in here I was born, and here I died. It was only a moment for you, you don’t notice.”

Madeleine’s seemingly absurd statement works within the complex plot of the film: In short, she is possessed by a long-dead ancestor, and so this idea that she—inhabited by a past personality—can point to rings indicating both her birth and death makes a sort of spooky sense. Hitchcock certainly had other things in mind, but we might consider Madeleine’s words as the pronouncement necessitated by the projective schema of the Anthropocene. Here we humans were born, and here we died. She stands at the vantage of the future which looks back to read the opening and closing of homo sapiens as it is scored into the planet. We have come and gone; the trees and their story of us remain. This, after all, is what Madeleine feels so poignantly: all the people who died as these trees, impassive but watchful, continued to live. The Anthropocene invites us, like Madeleine, to see our existence bounded in a time that trees, the planet—the tellers of the story—surpass. Standing poised over the containing record, we see the story entire. The tree thus acts as a partially satisfying symbol and harbinger of a distant future end, a seeming permanence against which our narratives can unfold.

2.
The cover of Richard Powers’s new novel The Overstory (2018) superimposes rings radiating outward atop what appears to be a Redwood forest. Each ring contains a different time: from day to night to day, and seemingly across years, too, as the small figures on horseback suggest. That The Overstory is about both trees and time is perhaps the simplest thing one could say about this environmental epic. Powers follows close to a dozen distinct storylines across centuries. Trees are characters alongside the people who form these multigenerational sagas—sagas that, by the novel’s conclusion, connect and blend. Forest ecology is an explicit focus of much of the novel—especially as focalized through Patty Westerford, an ecologist whose fictional The Secret Forest is a nod to the real-life The Hidden Life of Trees, by forester Peter Wohlleben. But even when characters aren’t musing over or discussing the life of the forest, the novel reinforces on the level of form the sense that trees offer profound testament to duration and interconnection.

Trees testify to a life both older and stranger than any we commonly perceive, and The Overstory is largely an experiment in scrambling—or splicing, in botanical terms—temporal orders: What happens when trees bend to the whims of human time? Usually, the novel suggests, they break, or are broken, at which point we are able to observe time, and thus ourselves amid the rings. This, the novel insists, is what is happening in the age of environmental catastrophe: Trees and the planet they sustain are forcefully sped up to our pace, a doomsday clock, and we are confronted by the repercussions in the downed wreckage that follows. But how does human life look and feel when put in terms of old growth and legacy trees? More expansive than we can easily imagine, it turns out. Good fodder for Powers, who, as Jeff Karnicky explains in his review of the novel, “Tree Time,” has the uncanny ability to build an entire narrative world around a single prevailing motif.

Powers keeps tree rings always in mind as the novel moves forward, with small images of tree cross-sections adorning chapter and section breaks. Throughout, too, various characters refer to and reflect on tree rings, whether in conducting actual dendrochronological research (as in the case of the ecologist character) or when thinking—as in Vertigo—of all the events that transpired at various points in a given tree’s ring record (a historic flood, a father’s death). Poignant in relation to Madeleine’s words in the Muir Woods is one haunting scene that closes a major section of the novel. Nick, the artist figure of the novel, returns home to a scene of tragedy, of death, which he immediately flees:
Nick blunders through the front door, trips down the porch steps, and falls into the snow. He rolls over in the freezing white, gasping and reviving. When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by the branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of Midwestern winter skies.
Passive and watchful, the tree—a “sentinel”—is the permanence under which the little human dramas unfold.

This is the way it should be, Powers suggests: Human stories mix, meander, and sputter in the understory of a larger life always proliferating above our heads, rooted sprawling under our feet. It is our poverty of imagination that keeps us dull to this life. A voice seemingly belonging to a tree—or to all trees, perhaps—makes this clear in the opening page: “All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.” On the scale of civilization, missing the half of it means we will “lose by winning” the war against nature and necessity, as one characters puts it. Towards the end of the novel, Powers actually uses one character to explain this problem in terms of the novel form itself. Ray Brinkman is in bed, his permanent place since a stroke that laid him low dozens of pages before. He listens to his wife read him books, working through “The Hundred Greatest Novels of all Time.” All of Powers’s characters are cognizant to some degree of the impending direness of environmental collapse, and Ray is no different. These thoughts follow him even into his interaction with books, which he understands to be fundamentally limited and limiting. “To be human,” Ray thinks:
is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.
It is difficult to know where Powers stands in relation to this statement. Is The Overstory a book-length refutation of Ray? Does Powers claim that a novel—this novel—can in fact do what Nixon wants and also accomplish what Ghosh says is beyond the scope of literary fiction? That is, can a novel render legible and compelling “life” as “mobilized on a vastly larger scale”? Or does this moment in The Overstory betray the novelist’s own doubts about his project? Is Ray the puncturing problem that Powers feels is always there, nagging? Whatever the case, the novel asks us to consider whether novels can indeed impress the overstory.

3.
In a recent interview, Powers cited Ursula K. Le Guin as inspiration for his environmental epic. He has in mind her classically environmental fiction—specifically, the novella The Word for World is Forest (1972). This science fiction shares with Powers an interest in confronting human concerns with the sublime expanse of forest ecology. Like The Overstory, Le Guin’s story wends conventional characters together with rooted ecologies more complex, interdependent, and surprising than anything we ambulatory beings can grasp. (Powers may also be thinking of Le Guin’s wonderfully weird “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” which expands on the sublimity of plant power in ways that I will not spoil here.)

It makes sense for Powers to see in The Word for World an important predecessor to The Overstory, but given the centrality of trees, the more important comparison is actually a lesser-known piece of fiction by the late great Le Guin. “The Direction of the Road” (1974) is a “tale” in Le Guin’s preferred fantastical sense of the term. Collected recently in The Unreal and the Real (2012), one of a two-volume set of collected works from Saga Press, the tale spans a mere seven pages, yet it asks the same questions that animate Powers’s 500-plus-page tome. But in asking the same questions, Le Guin’s tale comes to substantially different conclusions.

Much like The Overstory, “The Direction” is an exercise in point of view. While Powers begins with a tour de force opening from the perspective of a tree/trees only to then affix to human concerns, Le Guin’s entire story is narrated by a tree. But Le Guin lets us figure this out on our own through the first few pages. We get to know the tree: proud, dutiful, a bit inflexible and wooden, perhaps. The tree tells of its long life, its watchful stance over a century that sees horses give way to automobiles give way to traffic. Throughout, Le Guin plays a trick with relativity and perception in a way that I will let you explore on your own. (The provocation: How might a tree—a rooted tower—see the world? As she herself explains of her process in David Naimon’s recent Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, this is quintessential Le Guin. Change one rule, one significant parameter, and explore the repercussions all the way down.)

As usual, however, the most important moment of the tale arrives at the end. A car on the bustling road beside the tree smashes into its trunk. We might expect that the tree is done for, is mangled beyond recovery, a minimalist drama of the collision course we’ve set the warming planet on. This may have been the finale in the hands of a lesser writing. But for Le Guin the point is—as usual—almost completely the opposite of the expected. In the moment before the car makes contact, the driver looks up at the tree, and the tree feels itself seen in a wholly new and unwelcome way. “He saw me under the aspect of eternity,” the tree tells us. “He confused me with eternity. And because he died in that moment of false vision, because it can never change, I am caught in it, eternally.” The driver dies, and in his final moment, he makes the tree eternal, an injustice it can hardly bear, a cruelty it objects to passionately. “Eternity is none of my business,” the tree bemoans:
I am an oak, no more, no less. I have my duty; I have my pleasures, and enjoy them, thought they are fewer, since the birds are fewer, and the wind’s foul. But, long-lived though I may be, impermanence is my right. Mortality is my privilege. And it has been taken from me.
The tree is barely scathed. It is left standing, as if a permanent, unshakeable part of the landscape. And this is the tragedy.

4.
The Overstory is about the human inability to comprehend “tree time,” to borrow Karnicky’s phrase, a scale of hundreds if not thousands of years, and about the death of trees that follow in the wake of this continuing and perhaps inevitable misunderstanding. Joining Madeleine in Muir Woods, The Overstory suggests that we see in dead trees the catastrophe in full, written in rings as if having already occurred. Le Guin’s tale, on the other hand, is about a tree that demands the dignity of death. In the Anthropocene, a tree that clings to “impermanence” as a “right” is a reminder that the very idea of permanence is human. Powers makes of trees a would-be permanence felled low by human hubris, but Le Guin suggests exactly the opposite—that it is our misunderstanding that makes of trees a permanent fixture in the first place. Le Guin’s tale is an elegant reminder that the tidiness of the end—as if final and absolute—exists nowhere but in our collective desires.

A problem as overwhelming as climate change would seem to require the complexities of the long-form novel. We need not just characters but generations of characters; not just arcs but intersecting webs. Powers provides all of this and more, and there is much to commend in his remarkably synoptic and sprawling masterpiece. The Overstory is a deftly choreographed weave of human stories overshadowed and branched in extensive canopy. But even with this achievement in mind, Le Guin’s compact fable tugs as a necessary critique. Telling stories about the timelessness of trees risks forgetting that death is, of course, a natural part of life, even in the Anthropocene. There’s something in the comparative simplicity and compactness of Le Guin’s tale that insists on a perspective we hardly stop to accept, a voice lost amidst the din of our clamoring narrative needs. In our eagerness to find the end where there are only ends, the tree is made subordinate to a human story that is thereby circumscribed that much tighter.

The novel form has been pronounced dead by more critics through time than perhaps any other art form, and we will not further challenge its seemingly eternal, vampiric existence here. But even as the novel should continue to play an important (if vexed) role in addressing climate change through narrative, we would do well to hear the still, strange voice of an oak tree that has not yet died but hopes to do so, perhaps one day soon. This tree has something to say:
If they wish to see death visibly in the world, that is their business, not mine. I will not act Eternity for them. Let them not turn to the trees for death. If that is what they want to see, let them look into one another’s eyes and see it there.

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