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Tales of Trees & Humans
Dolores Davies Jamison | Crest Road

I’ve always been inspired by stately trees and their sheltering canopies and have always been drawn to communities like Del Mar, that appreciate trees and their many benefits. The 2018 book, The Overstory, by Richard Powers, was inspired by the author’s own epiphany during a walk through a majestic redwood forest in Santa Cruz. After he completed the massive amount of research needed to write his 500-page novel, Powers too felt transformed by the trees; he moved to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, near one of the nation’s untouched old-growth forests. Powers’s most poignant message? We as a society have misinterpreted the true meaning of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest doctrine. While he acknowledges that competition plays a role, the species that survive are the most adaptive to the natural world. Collaboration and cooperation are key strengths that make a species most fit. Our attachment to human exceptionalism, he argues, demands that the natural world adapt to us, a critical misstep that could lead to our extinction.

The Overstory presents the tales of nine characters, each of whom has some pivotal encounter with a tree or trees. Toward the end of the book—which won a slew of literary awards, including the 2019 Pulitzer Prize—the characters have all become inextricably linked in their reverence for old growth forests, 98% of which have been lost to the logger’s blade.

These vignettes form the “Roots” of the novel, and range from the Air Force loadmaster who is saved by a banyan tree during the Vietnam War, to the Iowa farm family with its tradition of preserving and photographing a sentinel Chestnut tree, from one generation to the next. While many of the characters experience an epiphany of sorts which forever changes their lives, one who has remarkable character—a shy, speech-impaired girl has a special bond with trees and plants. Patricia Westerfeld, more at ease in the company of trees and plants then humans, becomes a forestry biologist who documents the myriad ways trees collaborate, communicate, and protect each other.

Several characters in Powers’s novel were inspired by real people, including the Westerfeld character, who was based on the discoveries of Suzanne Simard, a Canadian professor of forest ecology. Simard discovered the symbiotic networks that exist between trees below-ground, and the exchanges of water, carbon and nutrients that occur in a “community of trees.” Westerfeld implores humans to pay attention to trees and argues that we have more in common with them then than we realize: “You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor.” In fact, the networks formed by trees mimic the neural and social networks formed by humans, says Simard.

After the reader is introduced to the “Roots,” and their tree tales, the novel advances to “Trunk,” in which some of the characters gather to protest the logging of old growth redwood trees in Oregon. Some of the protesters take up residence in Mimas, a monumental redwood tree. In “Crown,” we learn how the protesters’ actions resolve and the group splits up. In “Seeds,” the last part of the book, Powers writes about the consequences and the legacies they leave.



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