How Not to Die: Listening to Trees as Old as Jesus
“[Once] reduced to machinery, nature cannot speak unless spoken to, and then her answers must be yes, no, or obedient silence. She cannot address us in her own voice. And we certainly cannot hear whatever voice might attempt to speak to us through her.”
—David Bentley Hart
I was raised on the moral clarity of the Lorax, the best and bossiest of Dr. Seuss’s heroes, who “[speaks] for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” Every year on Arbor Day, my elementary school gave me a seedling to plant in my backyard, followed by a reading of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, an ambiguous parable that shows (depending on your perspective) either incomparable generosity or egregious theft. If you’re my age or younger, chances are you can call to mind the loud thwack of the last Truffula tree falling under the smoke-smuggered stars. You can likely still see the image of Silverstein’s once vibrant tree—now a stump—no longer good for anything but supporting a selfish old bum’s bum, and glad for the privilege.
These stories gave my young heart a glimpse of the environment as something personal and communal, having a nature it longs to fulfill and good goals of its own, yet vulnerable to exploitation. I learned to see nature as not merely the stage for human drama, but as a subject in its own right. Once nature had a face, I could recognize my bottomless appetites for what they were. Fables offered me the chance to feel indignation and render judgment against desires run amok. I am the short-sighted Once-ler. I am the hungry, heartless Boy. My appetites are a thing to behold, and no mistake.In both the Word and the world—in spirit and in body—trees sustain us with a grace we don’t deserve.
But I’m not in elementary school anymore. I needed to go beyond Seuss and Silverstein, and rediscover the hopeful seed of “Unless” (and the dead stump of defeat) in more complex storytelling. I needed adult fables to rummage through my conscience, to resituate me within nature like a prodigal come home, to offer me a path toward reciprocity, and to show me how to make amends. I needed a story that speaks with a voice louder than my hunger for convenience and the deep-seated fears which fuel it. Enter Richard Powers.
The Overstory—winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Powers’s twelfth novel—has the urgency of The Lorax and the moral ambiguity of The Giving Tree, but with a cast of characters rivaling Anna Karenina, a generational scope approximating One Hundred Years of Solitude, the scientific rigor of National Geographic, the unflagging spiritual rebuke of Laudato Si, and a poetic diction unmatched by other contemporary novelists I’ve read. The Overstory is “monumental,” in the words of Barbara Kingsolver, “a gigantic fable of genuine truths.” It is a tale of the interlocking lives of people and trees, meant to help us see what should be obvious, that “exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse.” The Overstory reveals our collective trajectory: it is disturbing, apocalyptic, and existential. To Powers, the story of humanity is one of “increasingly disoriented hunger” which—when paired with our unprecedented technology—is delivering a gut-punch to the balance of the world we call home.
“The towering, teetering pyramid of large living things is toppling down already, in slow motion, under the huge, swift kick that has dislodged the planetary system. The great cycles of air and water are breaking. The Tree of Life will fall again, collapse into a stump of invertebrates, tough ground cover, and bacteria, unless man… Unless man.”
Powers leaves us pondering the quality of the soil inside of our hearts and how much can grow there. How far can we extend our love, our stewardship, and our recognition of the sacred? Is any voice loud enough to pierce through the background buzz of our appetites and the roar of technology that feeds them? A chorus of living wood sings to us in The Overstory: “If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning… Listen,” they say, “There’s something you need to hear.”
A few years ago, Richard Powers was teaching at Stanford University and living in the heart of Silicon Valley. To get away from it all he’d take walks in the woods, exploring forests that had grown back after having been clear-cut more than one and a half centuries ago to build San Francisco. He originally found the trees quite beautiful and impressive, until he stumbled upon a single tree that had somehow escaped those original loggers.
“It was the width of a house, the length of a football field, and as old as Jesus or Caesar. Compared to the trees that had so impressed me, it was like Jupiter is to the Earth. I began to imagine what they must have looked like, those forests that would not return for centuries, if ever. It seemed to me that we had been at war for a long time, trees and people, and I wondered if it might be possible for things ever to go any other way.”1
Powers had a profound mystical experience that day among the giant redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, one that inspired him to describe himself as “the most religious atheist you’ll ever meet.” Not long after, he quit his teaching job and began one of the happiest periods of his life, researching and writing what would become The Overstory.
Powers learned that the millennial giants of the arboreal community do the lion’s share of the forest carbon sequestration that regulates our climate. The largest 1% of trees in a forest account for more than half of the carbon biomass contained there.3 Most of our current forests are (relatively speaking) babies, not because America naturally lacks primeval forests, but because most of them have already been cut down. And while planting new trees is a good idea, in no way does it compensate for the eradication of ancient forests. “The razing of an old-growth forest is not just the destruction of magnificent individual trees—it’s the collapse of an ancient republic whose interspecies covenant of reciprocation and compromise is essential for the survival of Earth as we’ve known it.”4
That’s right: a forest is a “republic” grounded in reciprocation. As Powers read about forests and explored them firsthand, he encountered a “telos in living things that scientific empiricism shies away from.” This is the place where his philosophy, atheist though he is, overlaps with Christianity. Powers perceives in the world (and evokes in his writing) the inherent purposiveness of living things, both human and non-human.
One of The Overstory’s nine protagonists, Patricia Westerford, is a botanist who is more at home among plants than people. Alone in a cabin deep in the forest, immersed day and night in that chorus of living wood, it dawns on her that if you “join enough living things together, through the air and underground… you wind up with something that has intentions.” Westerford’s decades of research reveal that
“Trees take care of each other… trees sense the presence of other nearby life… trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks. 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.”
Patricia Westerford is a fictional character, but her research is real. Powers was inspired by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who discovered that a forest behaves as though it is a single organism. Simard’s work shows that tree roots are linked by fungal threads that form a network under the forest floor. These “subterranean synapses” enable trees to communicate and share resources like carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals, and hormones. The largest “mother trees” typically share with the smaller, weaker, or sickened trees—even those of a different species. It almost sounds like the stuff of science fiction, anthropomorphism, or animism. “There are no individuals,” Westerford muses in The Overstory. “There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than the leaves on a single tree.”
Science is now beginning to give back a little bit of what it has for centuries taken away: our ability to see wholes instead of just isolated parts, to witness a world that is relational and agentic, not simply mechanical and material; a world that is deeply cooperative, not solely competitive. And this has philosophical consequences, according to Powers. “Every form of mental despair and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive. We’re deeply, existentially lonely… Until it’s exciting and […] ecstatic to think that everything else has agency and is reciprocally connected we’re going to be terrified and afraid of death, and it’s mastery or nothing.”5
Mastery or nothing. Are those our only options? Powers says, “Whatever we receive from the non-human world is not a right, but a gift.” Too often we’ve used our collective power as humans not to serve, but to be served; not to tend, but to suck dry and discard the husk. Depending on the cultural milieu of the moment, Genesis was read as showing a wild world in need of tending and cultivation by human stewards, or as a chaotic, cursed, ruinous force (“thorns and thistles”) that called out for human dominion.Powers has done his best to give us such a story. He shows us what it looks like when someone falls in love with trees and becomes capable of hearing them speak without words.
The mechanistic paradigm of science severed our sacramental connection to the natural world. Even though we tend to associate this with the Enlightenment, it actually had its beginnings in the Western Christian tradition6: this means the problem is one of our own making. The scientific attitude increased the “othering” of nature, turning it into something to be studied, explored, manipulated, and controlled. The power humanity gained through technological innovation put us—our desires, our priorities, our speed, our waste—exponentially beyond the normally slow and plodding pace of nature, with its delicate balancing acts, ecological relationality, adaptive feedback loops, and complex recycling that endlessly turns death into new life. “Pollution is merely the revelation of a situation changing at high speeds,” Marshall McLuhan once said. We became so out of sync with the natural world that we couldn’t see it anymore for the home and the family it was, or recognize its sacramental potency. In mastering it, we dislocated ourselves from it. The writer Walker Percy described our predicament well: the scientific enterprise enabled us to understand the mechanism of the Cosmos, but by the same motion placed us outside the Cosmos as aliens or ghosts, stranded outside a vast machinery to which we are denied entry.7 Out of joint and estranged, we became misfits in an empty world of “mere matter,” suddenly terrified that maybe we were only material too. In the words of Oxford scholar Owen Barfield, “The more able man [became] to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he [could] perceive any meaning in it.”
By contrast, The Overstory offers a vision of mystery and meaning in the natural world that resonates with the healthiest versions of Christianity. It shows us humble and reciprocal participation—in other words, love. The only way we can rekindle this participation with nature is to learn to see meaningful subjects-in-relationship and icons of God’s glory where previously we saw only usable objects. “No one sees trees,” says one of Powers’s protagonists. “We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees—trees are invisible.”
The ecologist Simard says we’ve gotten used to treating nature like a shopping mall. What will it take for us to recognize nature once again as our family and our home, with all the duties that entails? What will it take for us to see nature with wide-eyed wonder again, instead of that narrow, calculating gaze of extraction? Pope Francis believes it will require “a profound interior conversion.” “The external deserts in the world are growing,” Pope Benedict lamented, “because the internal deserts have become so vast.” How we relate with nature is indeed a religious matter.
Richard Powers invites us to rejoin life’s fraternity, reminding us that “you and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years so, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes.” Rather than feeling disturbed by the thought of our connection to nature (as if this diminished our value) or sidestepping our obligations to nature (as if this threatened our well-being), Christians can actually go a step further than Powers. We can acknowledge that our bond with trees goes deeper than genes, lumber, and oxygen-dependence. We can become “conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings” (Laudato Si). Our endemic loneliness and despair are symptoms of homesickness—a longing for what Pope Francis calls a “splendid universal communion,” our connection with the rest of creation that we have lost. The question is, how do we come home? How do we become balanced participants with other forms of life, instead of bottomless appetites desperate to avoid death, pain, and boredom? How can we see ourselves as being of-a-piece with this place—enough to stop us from sawing off the branch on which we sit, or rather, the branches by which we breathe?
“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind,” Powers reminds us. “The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Powers has done his best to give us such a story. He shows us what it looks like when someone falls in love with trees and becomes capable of hearing them speak without words. He shows us what a mystical experience of participation with nature can look like and how it can transform our behavior, life trajectory, and inner attitude from selfishness to service.
Like a parable meant to disrupt rather than affirm our prejudices, Powers’s narrative raises provocative questions: “What is it within us that gives us this need not just to satisfy basic biological wants, but to extend our wills over things, to objectify them, to make them ours, to manipulate them, to keep them at a psychic distance?” And “who does the tree-hugger really hug, when he hugs a tree?” Why are we at times incapable of acting in our own best interest? Will confirmation bias and the bystander effect writ large waltz us straight off the climate cliff? Will we always skim the surface of the world, oblivious to anything that doesn’t look like us? What if Owen Barfield was right—that consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck onto the rest of it, but is actually the inside of the whole world, and that by entering back into communion with nature we can withdraw from the brink of a great disaster?
Not all of the characters in The Overstory retain such hopes. When a small group of activists fails in their efforts to protect the last 3% of ancient coastal redwoods, the language and tone of the story darkens.
“Humans are all that count, the final word. You cannot shut down human hunger. You cannot even slow it. Just holding steady costs more than the race can afford… Life will cook; the seas will rise. The planet’s lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough. Imminent, at the speed of people, is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees.”
Unless. A word pregnant with hope and possibility. A word that requires us to use our imaginations.
Imagine trees as a green thread weaving their way through the Bible. In the beginning, humanity is nourished by the Tree of Life in God’s presence. In the Gospels, the kingdom of God “is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matt. 13:32). Christ himself “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed (1 Peter 2:24). The Scriptures close with an image of the Tree of Life once more, perpetually fruitful with leaves for the healing of the nations. In both the Word and the world—in spirit and in body—trees sustain us with a grace we don’t deserve.
The Overstory made my mind a slightly greener thing. When I walk in the woods, put pencil to paper, read a book, sit at my oak table, eat an apple, sleep in my four poster bed, or just take a deep breath of clean air—the gifts and goodness of trees drown me in meaning, and I take in this truth: “What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”8
I’m just one small person, and I don’t know what to do about the climate crisis. But I can start with looking more, with loving more. I can reach out my roots to you, reader, in faith that humans, like trees, are connected by invisible threads. You’re reading this on the World Wide Web, after all. Each of us is a node in a relational network, connected to countless others. And it is prayer that holds together the shattered fragments of creation.9 Tug on that thread.
“Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,
teach us to contemplate you
in the beauty of the universe,
for all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
for every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
to everything that is…
God of love,
show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.”
1. INTERVIEW Richard Powers: On writing ‘The Overstory’, in Yale Climate Connections, by Amy Brady. May 2, 2018.
2. Standing by a Sequoia log in California, c. 1910. (Photo: Library of Congress/HAER CAL,54-THRIV.V,2–17)
3. “Wild Carbon and Wild Forests” on The Old Growth Forest Network.
4. The Social Life of Forests in The New York Times, by Farris Jabr. Dec. 2, 2020.
5. Interview Richard Powers: ‘We’re completely alienated from everything else alive’ in The Guardian, by Emma John. June 16, 2018.
6. The history of Western Christianity’s severance from nature is described by Hans Boersma in “Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry.”
7. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, by Walker Percy.
8. The Overstory, by Richard Powers.
9. Jacques Ellul.
10. Closing prayer from Laudato Si.