A Great Presence
It hit me with the force of an ocean wave—the sudden scent of the giant sequoias drifting through the golden-green light of morning in the forest understory. It was my first trip to Yosemite and my friend Carlos and I had come here to climb: sight of the world famous cliffs of ‘The Valley’—El Capitan, Half Dome, The Sentinel, Cathedral—awaited us later in the day. But traveling through the park from our hotel in Mariposa, it was the presence of the sequoias that was making me giddy, before we had even caught a glimpse of the airy granite heights. Or the magnificent trees themselves for that matter, almost equal in scale to the big walls of Yosemite. At 350 feet tall and as old as 3,000 years, giant sequoias are considered by some the largest living beings on the planet.
The perfume of those trees instantly spoke to my heart of their splendor, grace, and enduring grandeur—it stirred in me some wild and primeval recognition, not unlike catching a whiff of the sea for the first time. I can appreciate my own vivid sense-memory all the more in these pandemic days—the prospect of forever losing my sense of smell terrifies me, maybe even more than the other strange and unsettling long-term effects of this new virus. But in recalling the sensory richness of that moment, these lines from Theodore Roethke’s “The Far Field” come to mind:
All finite things reveal infinitude: / The mountain with its sinister bright shade / Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow, / The after-light upon ice-burdened pines; / Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope, / A scent beloved of bees; / Silence of water above a sunken tree; / The pure serene of memory in one man,— / A ripple widening from a single stone / Winding around the waters of the world.
Fifteen years ago as we drove through groves of these colossal, breathtaking beings on our way to one of nature’s great ‘cathedrals,’ it hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps these trees were the more worthy subject for our wonder and reverence. Or that climate breakdown and its effects could threaten the continued existence of these forests and their likes in my lifetime.
Trees of Life
About 3.5 billion years ago, simple life forms such as bacteria began evolving the ability to photosynthesize energy from light, carbon dioxide and water. A byproduct of that chemical reaction was oxygen. Oxygenation ultimately led to an atmosphere in which the evolution of more complex life became possible. However, the earliest complex plants didn’t appear until just 850 million years ago and it took another 400 million years for the first trees to appear.
When trees came onto the scene and began proliferating, their presence altered not just the landscapes where they grew, but the composition of the soils in which they were rooted and the atmospheric chemistry and weather of their surroundings. It is the presence of photosynthetic flora, and especially trees, that through their essential role in the carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles enables the continued existence of so much of life on Earth. In this sense, they are literally trees of life.
But trees also provide food and shelter for much of the life that their photo-chemical reactions enable, from the tiniest insects up to the primates from which we’re descended. Between 85 and 55 million years ago, small terrestrial mammals shifted to life among the trees of tropical jungles. For these creatures, the trees provided food and habitat in which to live, as they do now for many modern primate species.
According to what is known as the ‘arboreal theory,’ over the course of evolutionary time spent among the branches, two particularly important anatomical developments took place. Hands (and feet) capable of grasping—necessary to swing from branch to branch among the treetops—arose; and an especially sharp visual system which enabled the precise depth perception essential for moving through the three-dimensional space of the tree-scape developed. These two adaptations would have represented a competitive advantage for our distant ancestors when they eventually came down out of the trees.
Trees, and in particular, the ‘Tree of Life’ represent important mythological archetypes from humanity’s earliest attempts at storytelling about its own origins. In many world cultures, trees have mythological significance as a symbol of vitality, fertility, or wisdom. The Buddha is said to have received enlightenment beneath a banyan tree and Frazier’s The Golden Bough, an anthropological study in myth and comparative religion, was one of the major inspirations for T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
However the ‘tree myths’ with which many Westerners are most familiar occur in the Bible’s Book of Genesis. Here the ‘garden’ of Eden (which was maybe an orchard) contains its version of the Tree of Life but also the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which Adam and Eve are tempted to eat the consequential fruit that leads to their downfall.
If we are to try and make sense of this story from an anthropological or deep-historical perspective, eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil seems to represent the development of self-awareness or consciousness. Evolutionary biologists think this occurred about five million years ago, when the great apes split off from the lesser apes. This dawning of self-awareness may be the definitive characteristic that separates humanity, for better or worse, from the rest of the natural world. At least it’s one of the things, along with our use of language, that enables us to tell ourselves ‘stories’ about our place in it.
The Stories We Tell
The two novels that I have enjoyed the most in recent years are both ‘tree stories’—Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Both works offer stories in which the human lives of their main characters connect and relate to the destiny of trees and forests that, one might argue, represent the greater subjects and sometimes characters within these novels.
The narratives that unfold across multiple human generations in both works correspond to the deeper, slower developmental pace of ‘tree time.’ This is an effect that succeeds in decentering the human characters from stories that are ultimately greater and longer than any one human life-span. It is through this broader scope that each novel attests to the lives and stories of the more-than-human arboreal worlds that we ignore, exploit, or destroy at our peril.
The Overstory begins in mid-19th century Brooklyn, when a Norwegian immigrant pockets some chestnuts before travelling west to Iowa to settle there, where he plants the seeds. A grove of American chestnuts springs forth, and individual trees develop and decline through the generations until just one tree is left, surviving into the current lifetime of the immigrant’s descendant, Nick Hoel. Nick is an artist and one of the nine humans and five trees whose inter-related stories and destinies form the ‘trunk’ of Powers’ narrative.
Like growth rings on a tree, the individual stories of each character accrue meaning and weight as they occur, in a series of vignettes interspersed across years of development. Each has a transformative encounter or relationship with a tree that compels them to act, in one way or another, on behalf of threatened trees and forests.
At the heart of the novel in 1989, Nick and a woman named Olivia—who has had a visionary near-death experience in which she is called to defend coastal redwoods—meet up and occupy a giant redwood called Mimas:
“From underneath, it could be Yggdrasil, the World Tree with its roots in the underworld and crown in the world above. Twenty-five feet aboveground, a secondary trunk springs out of the expanse of flank, a branch bigger than the Hoel Chestnut. Two more trunks flare out higher up the main shaft. The whole ensemble looks like some exercise in cladistics, the Evolutionary Tree of Life—one great idea splintering into whole new family branches, high up in the long run of time.”
They intend to spend two weeks occupying Mimas from a perch in its branches but end up falling in love and living there as the surrounding forest is clear cut. Their life in the tree is an almost fantastical interlude, where their traumas and wounds are healed and they fall into the rhythms of the arboreal world of the treetop. After over a year, they are eventually driven from the tree and it is brought down by the loggers.
The two become involved in activism and join up with several others characters in the western US who are introduced separately earlier in the novel. They are involved in a series of protests and eventually turn to clandestine raids on logging camps where they destroy equipment by means of arson. In a final raid, Olivia is accidentally killed though the other members of the group escape. They disband and the narrative arc bends as their stories branch away.
Over time, two members present at the fatal raid find they can’t outrun the consequences of their actions. Faced with the accelerating loss of forests, some characters succumb to despair, while others live on with a kind of quiet resolution. The novel ends on a hopeful note, though.
Nick the artist is now living close to the arctic tundra and is engaged in building an enormous, living monument from dead tree branches and trunks. He is offered help with his project by an indigenous man and his family. Their work, when it is complete will be visible from space and last for two centuries. An embodiment of the enduring and regenerative power of nature, their effort will spell the word ‘STILL.’
Annie Proulx’s epic tome Barkskins covers an even greater historical expanse and geographic range than The Overstory while tracing the limbs of two family trees upward from their roots in colonial French Canada. The eponymous ‘barkskins’ are Duquet and Sel, two indentured servants brought to the new world from France to work clearing the forests on the estate of Monsieur Trepagny. Duquet runs off into the wilderness at the first chance and eventually finds fortune and wealth as a fur trader in the Canadian wilderness. Rene Sel, on the other hand, works off the terms of his indenture and marries a Mi’kmaq woman with whom he has children who maintain ties with their ancestral forests.
Over the course of generations, Duquet’s progeny marry into upwardly mobile European settler families and eventually change their name to Duke. Through the years they move to Boston and other parts of the newly independent US and eventually build a business based on logging and timber. In the centuries leading up to the present, their business becomes a global empire that profits directly from the destruction of forests and depends on ever-greater economic and geographic expansion to maintain its growth. As far afield as New Zealand, their enterprise brings a colonialist mindset of extraction and exploitation to the great forests of the world and the peoples that depend on them for their livelihood.
The Sel children maintain ties with the indigenous community to which their mother Mari belonged, and they eventually return to it. All the while, they are driven from their lands by colonists eager to reduce their forests to fields for planting. The circumstances of their dispossession become more violent and extreme as the wilderness disappears at the hands of white settlers and the decades progress.
The indigenous communities and families of the Sel lineage are continually uprooted and forced by decree or circumstance from one land to the next, roaming as far afield as New England and the Canadian maritime provinces. Several generations of the Sel men find a living as lumberjacks and forest workers—‘barkskins’ once again—doing the backbreaking and dangerous work of clearing the forest for the likes of the Dukes, with whom they at times cross paths.
While neither family lineage or its constituent members are reducible to the simple moral categories of good or evil, there is a sort of cold-blooded self interest to most members of the Duquet/Duke family. Tellingly, as the Duke family enterprise gains in prestige and wealth, the individual aspirations and destinies of many of its members are increasingly subsumed by the greater cause of the perpetuation of the corporate entity that bears their name. The Sels, on the other hand, though frequently living lives of privation, maintain family and tribal relations that ultimately see them through the worst times, even as their communities are broken up.
There are several occasions throughout the novel where the branches of the two family trees cross, or seem to. The novel eventually winds down with the a Duke descendant establishing through genealogical research that ancestors of Sel may be the rightful heirs to the Duke fortune, at which point the company is dissolved. But this novel also ends on a hopeful note, with two members of the Sel clan dedicating their lives to conservation and environmental restoration work. In the final pages of the book, one of the conservation workers affirms:
“It will take thousands of years for great ancient forests to return. None of us here will see the mature results of our work, but we must try, even if it is only one or two people with buckets of seedlings working to put forest pieces back together. It is terribly important to all of us workers—I can’t find the words to say how important—to help the earth regain its vital diversity of tree cover. And the forests will help us. They are old hands at restoring themselves.”
Fifteen years after that moment of epiphany in Yosemite, the world’s forests are under greater threat than ever. The catastrophic fires that are occurring with increasing frequency all over the world, due to climate breakdown or more direct human causes, bear no resemblance to the periodic burns brought on by truly ‘natural’ causes or the practices of indigenous land keepers, who keenly grasped the role of fire in forest ecosystems. We watch helplessly as more and more of the great forests of Amazonia, the arctic, the western United States and elsewhere go up in smoke each season.
Other non-human threats include diseases like the fungal dieback that is wreaking havoc on the ash trees of Europe just as the chestnut blight wiped out entire forests of the American chestnut 100 years ago. Once called the ‘redwoods of the east,’ and numbering in the billions, the American chestnut is now functionally extinct.
The bark beetle, a pest whose range and destructive capacity has been amplified by climate breakdown, continues to ravage pine forests all over North America. And even since I began writing this piece, fifteen giant sequoias have toppled in Yosemite, brought down by hundred-mile-per-hour winds. Whether this was due in full or in part to disease and the changing climate is unknown.
Of all the life-forms under threat from the forces of the Anthropocene, it is the plight of the trees and of the world’s great forests that troubles me the most. Trees for me, and likely you too, are the life-forms with which we have had long relationship, with which humanity and our human forebears have had deep and essential relationships from our very beginnings—and our fates are ultimately linked to the forests from which we emerged.
But it is encouraging and perhaps reason for hope to witness ongoing awakening in consciousness to the lives of trees and forests, as borne out by the popularity and interest in novels such as Barkskins and The Overstory. Other popular works, like Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, offer wondrous glimpses into ‘unseen’ woody worlds.
Interest in ways for humans to connect more directly with trees on other levels also seems to be growing. Writing in the beautiful Emergence Magazine, Irish artist Katie Holten describes the tree alphabet she has developed to help us reconnect with trees, and David George Haskell, a biologist and author of The Songs of Trees, writes of his own remarkable experiences with tree scents.
There are many ways we can forge or deepen our relationships with the arboreal world that so urgently requires our attention. But as a forest voice in the prologue to The Overstory urges—“Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”