A Meditation on The Overstory

The Overstory
Richard Powers
2018, W. W. Norton & Company

What makes some people so utterly convinced that the only living being with awareness and will is humanity? I understand that many of these people have spent millennia believing in deities that placed humans above the rest of creation, but this seems to me to be more a symptom than a cause of the notion that humans are special. You have to first place humans above creation before you can accept a story for why that should be true.

What would cause a person to separate humans from all other forms of life? It’s illogical to the extreme. The improbability of human singularity (or really any singularity) is so very large that to embrace this idea you have to deny the validity of statistics. You must create all sorts of absurd stories to explain how other organisms meet their needs and then make up tortured comparisons to show that humans are always different. In fact, always superior. There need to be an endless number of filters in place to deny sensory experience and explain away the common logic that is sitting right before our face. Maintaining human specialness is exhausting.

You can’t even use the same language to describe the actions of a human and then those same actions in some other animal. If a lemur sees a banana that is out of reach and spends time trying futilely to get to the banana, becoming agitated in the process, we can’t say that the lemur is frustrated or annoyed. Those are words that imply will. The lemur can be allowed hunger, even anger, but not disappointed desires, not plans that have been thwarted. The lemur can have chemical reactions, but not premeditated designs. Which makes it sort of hard to understand why he would be trying to get to the banana.

It becomes even more ridiculous when we talk of life forms that don’t have animal bodies similar to our own. Some animals are classed near humans because they resemble humans in form. They follow similar patterns in taking in food or reproducing themselves. They have mobility. They have eyes and appendages. Some even have thumbs. They are weak imitations of humans so they are granted lesser forms of interiority — instinct and brute emotion. Though not consciousness. But plants? Fungi? All the faceless forms of animal life? All the lifeforms that we can’t perceive with our own senses? We can hardly talk of these beings in any reasonable manner at all.

In the world view of human exceptionalism, a tree does not act. It does not do. It does not analyze sensory information. It certainly doesn’t consider. A tree is merely an assemblage of cells that somehow cohere and mysteriously work together to be a living entity — but without cooperation, because that would be intentional. In our language about trees, we carefully strip away all logical reason for the tree’s apparent form and function, leaving its existence, its ability to be there alive and in front of us, to… magic. Trees don’t even get assigned animal instincts. In this logic of human singularity, trees are pure response. Which makes it very hard to understand why some responses do happen and some don’t — and in many cases many different responses will happen to exactly the same stimulus.

“At some time over the last four hundred million years, some plant has tried every strategy with a remote chance of working. We’re just beginning to realize how varied a thing working might be.”

The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is a story of trees and the bizarre stories we weave around trees so that we do not see trees.

“We scientists are taught never to look for ourselves in other species. So, we make sure nothing looks like us! … Only man, you see: only man could know enough to want things.”

‘We make sure nothing looks like us’ when we use special language to describe all other life forms, but especially trees. We convince ourselves that ‘only man’ can ‘want things’ by forcefully stripping all agency, all will, all thought from living beings, turning them into things. This takes so much energy. This false front we’ve constructed between humans — or really just a small subset of humans — and all else takes constant maintenance. We must be willfully blind, repeatedly shouting these stories of thing-ness to ourselves in the face of all the evidence before our eyes. Because it is so obviously untrue, this tale we tell of our specialness. One moment in the forest is enough to break it apart along with all our notions of inert matter. Trees are alive. Any child can see this…

“A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. … Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.”

Any human can feel this awareness, can know there is thought in the woods, just by allowing that story of human exceptionalism to fall away for a few seconds. And once that happens, once that story is revealed as an empty fantasy, it is so very difficult to put it back in place. All the tales of outsiders in this culture, like all the characters in The Overstory, all these ‘human-race-betrayers’ were once awakened to the real world and could not put the soporific blinders back on. Could not unsee the trees and the forest and the intent in other ways of being. It is hard work to be so very blind. The senses are constantly needling that story of exceptionalism. The mind is continually asking ‘How can humans be special when there is all this?’

Trees are old and varied and everywhere. There are few places that trees do not grow and support myriad other forms of life. One of the outsiders in Powers’ story observes “It’s a great idea, trees. So great that evolution keeps inventing it, again and again.” We talk of humans adapting to all the strange corners of this globe as if this is a new thing, and perhaps it is new for one species to spread so far with no genetic variation to accommodate the infinite forms of novelty that must become food and shelter — and must be protected against. We use our isolation within our own built environments in place of that genetic variation, but this is obviously not a reliable plan. Much better to have many ideas in place and then cooperate, let information and assistance flow between varied answers to ‘what works’, so that when novelty strikes someone will have the means of adapting and can help everyone else. A forest survives a novel virus, not just a tree. A system adapts to change, not an isolated part. A family takes care of everyone. There is no room for specialness in a whole living ecosystem. Our isolation is deadly.

But it is also profitable. It is the only story we can tell ourselves that grants permission to appropriate and use up, to destroy other life forms, to take, to remove and to not give back, all in an inexhaustible attempt to satiate the bottomless want of status and power. It is the foundation of hierarchy and the buttress of capitalism. However meagre and thin, this story of human exceptionalism is the only justification for turning all the rest of the living world into resources and labor, things free for the taking. But to be powerful, to have power of command over others, to have a will unrestricted by relationship, is to be singular and isolated — and therefore vulnerable. This is why we are failing. And why we need to see the trees.

“If we could see green, we’d see a thing that keeps getting more interesting the closer we get. If we could see what green is doing, we’d never be lonely or bored. If we could understand green, we’d learn how to grow all the food we need in layers three deep, on a third of the ground we need right now, with plants that protected one another from pests and stress. If we knew what green wanted, we wouldn’t have to choose between the Earth’s interests and ours. They’d be the same!”

But those wants of trees and green and, indeed, life, congenial as they may be to our human bodies, are not the same as those who want power and status. This is why we must tell ourselves this story of human exceptionalism. Having food and shelter and happiness is not the goal in this narrative. Being alive and content and free is not enough. Wealth is not even enough. There is no enough. There is always this constant contention with reality to prove that we are superior — when there is no evidence for that at all. This lack of evidence continually battering down the tale we try to build up makes for such fragile egos. We lash out, asserting power just to show that we can. We devalue all that we see merely to convince ourselves of our own worth. Under power lies great uncertainty and weakness — and apprehension. We can’t escape the insidiously flowing knowledge that we are no better — and no worse — than all the rest of the forest. That we have the same needs after all. 

Because we evolved together.

“Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been Homo sapiens.”

We may be jealous of trees. They are older. They have seen more than we ever will. And they will outlive us. For possessing the long lives and ancient lineages we so desire for ourselves, we can’t forgive trees. And this grudge assuages the conscience, bolsters up the uncertainty in our superiority. How else could a human muster the will to cut down the majesty of a redwood and grind its heartwood into pulp for paper! How do we justify the loss of information? The truncating of all the lives that preserve each other and ultimately ourselves? We cut off our own future when we clear cut a forest. And for what!

“Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory. It’s called genes. To save the future, we must save the past. My simple rule of thumb, then, is this: when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”

We don’t make miracles from the trees. We make particle board and shipping containers and toothpicks. It takes no great awareness to know that these are not going to sustain us. That we are diminishing the viability of life — including our own — to make trash.

Powers does not get lost in this despair though. There is loss and horrible grief all through his Overstory. There is cruelty and stupidity and obtuse selfishness. There is casual indifference. There is pervasive death. But his outsiders are not unhappy even in the midst of pain and sorrow. Powers shows the equanimity that flows into human lives when they become rooted. When we focus on ourselves, we flail about searching for meaning and never even approach it. But he shows us that when we begin once more to tell the story that is clearly written in the forest, when we sink into meaningful life and feel intent and awareness flowing in and around us, when we join what is larger than ourselves and yet part of ourselves, then we find love…

There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.

… and purpose…

But believe me: trees want something from us, just as we’ve always wanted things from them. This isn’t mystical. The ‘environment’ is alive  a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other.

… and eternity…

This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.


And this is a story worthy of us, one worth telling our children…

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

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