Ancient banyans, sacred figs and blighted chestnuts are some of the engaging characters that exist alongside the nine people at the heart of revelatory novel The Overstory (William Heinemann, £18.99) charting the long war between humans and trees.
The stories in the book feature individuals who are each summoned by trees to save them. Did you have a similarly dramatic awakening that led you to write The Overstory?
I did. I was teaching at Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, surrounded by the corporate headquarters of Google, Apple, Facebook, Intel, HP, eBay, Netflix, and many other inventors of the future. But just to the west were the redwood-covered Santa Cruz mountains. When I needed to get away from the race for the future down in the Valley, I would head up to walk in the regrown woods. One day, I came across a single tree that had, for whatever reason, escaped the loggers when those forests had been clear-cut to build San Francisco. That single tree was as wide as a house, as long a football pitch, and older than Jesus. It was like coming across a creature from another planet. I began to imagine what they must have looked like, those ancient old-growth forests that were now gone forever. The history of that place began to seem to me like a long war between trees and people, a history I’d never really stopped to consider. Within a few months, I quit my job at Stanford and devoted myself full time to writing The Overstory.
Are trees a vehicle for these stories or are the human characters almost beside the point?
When I first started writing, I dreamed of a book where the main characters would be trees. That proved to be more of a challenge than I knew how to handle! In the finished book, nine very different human beings with their own complicated values and backgrounds form the heart of the story, but the supporting cast still includes many trees with personalities all their own – a giant coastal redwood, an old American chestnut far out of its native range, a banyan the size of a village, a family’s mulberry that mysteriously sickens, even as the family itself does as well…
We Homo sapiens do play a leading role in what is now happening to the Earth. But ours is not the only significant one, and we are far from the only earthly characters with agency, will or consequences for where that shared story is heading. If we humans mean to go on living here, our stories will need to get better at including all the non-human characters who make our life here possible.
Are trees sentient, social and intelligent beings?
They are without a doubt social. Scientists are now unfolding the secrets of how trees share sugars and metabolites – food and medicine – with one another through underground fungal connections. Are they sentient or intelligent? That depends on how you mean the words. Trees signal and respond to one another about dangers and opportunities. They call in insect air forces when they are under threat. They remember the seasons and adjust their behaviours flexibly to changing conditions. There is certainly much more to them than science previously suspected. The more I learn about them, the less outrageous those descriptive terms seem to me.
What are your predictions for the future of our trees?
I am very hopeful for the future of trees. They evolved many times, independently, and some species have survived more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. Trees have persisted through several mass extinctions and come back with a vengeance, time and again. It’s humans I’m worried about. We are going to need a transformation as dramatic as anything in Ovid to survive the massive changes we’ve already set loose in the soil and water and atmosphere.
What’s your favourite type of tree and why?
Since getting “tree consciousness,” my favourite tree is generally the one I am standing in front of and paying attention to. But to play fair with the question and pick a species – so many to love! – let me name the pawpaw. It’s a little-known tree, even in its native America. I can’t pretend it’s outwardly beautiful. Its big, pungent leaves hang down from their branches like fat, 1970s neckties in disarray. But it is the only member of the custard apple family that survives natively outside the tropics, and it grows as far north as southern Michigan. Its fruit looks like a large green pickle that ripens toward the end of summer. When I first tasted one, I thought I’d died and gone to my childhood’s heaven. The creamy pulp tastes like butterscotch pudding, banana or mango, depending on the tree and the local conditions, and it’s highly nutritious. The trees spread clonally, by their roots, in patches through the understory, and pawpaws will survive even beneath thick coverings of taller trees. As a result, if we brought it back from decline, the tree could play an important role in the permaculture of a country learning how to live here.
Main image: Richard Powers with an American chestnut snag – a tree that was probably about seven metres in circumference when it was alive. All of them are gone now (Joan Maloof)