On Sunday night I was woken at 2am by the sound of chainsaws. My first thought that I was dreaming – I’ve been reading The Overstory, by Richard Powers, which is about trees and the courageous stand taken by a small number of humans to protect America’s last few acres of virgin forest, so chainsaws feature heavily – but as I became more and more awake, I realised that these chainsaws were for real.

We were staying at my brother-in-law’s millhouse, down in Sussex, and it turned out that the blustery winds, as well as bringing some much-needed rain to the parched English countryside, had also brought down a tree across the road, about 10 yards from our bedroom window. Workmen had shown up to clear the branches and make the road passable.

Yet it was also a sign of how much this book has seeped into my consciousness, that my first half-awake thought was to rush out and defend a tree. I rarely read fiction, but I highly recommend The Overstory.

The writing is lyrical and evocative, and the main message I’m taking away from it is how interconnected our forests are. We may talk about not seeing the wood for the trees, but in fact, the wood is the trees – together, the trees form a super-organism that is so much more than the sum of its parts. As the Overstory blurb on Amazon says, “There is a world alongside ours – vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive and almost invisible to us.”

Some gems from the book:

“…trees are social creatures. It’s obvious to her: motionless things that grow in mass mixed communities must have evolved ways to synchronize with one another.”

“The things she catches Doug-firs doing, over the course of these years, fill her with joy. When the lateral roots of two Douglas-firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through those self-grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless thousands of miles of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests …. It will take years for the picture to emerge.”

“Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. 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 do the leaves on a single tree.”

“She sees it in one great glimpse of flashing gold: trees and humans, at war over the land and water and atmosphere. And she can hear, louder than the quaking leaves, which side will lose by winning.”

The book draws on the latest discoveries about the nature of forests, as explained in Suzanne Simard’s TED talk about the Wood Wide Web. As with so many miracles of life on earth, we are discovering just how amazing a natural phenomenon is, just as we bring it to the brink of extinction. We lose one percent of the world forest every decade, which equates to an area larger than Connecticut, every year. Views vary as to how much old growth forest is left (according to Tree Sisters it is probably about 20%) but what we can be sure of is that we would be reckless to cut any more of it. Complex ecosystems like this take centuries to develop, so thinking that replanting is the same as replacing is, as The Overstory says, like arranging Beethoven’s Ninth for solo kazoo.

The book urges us not to suffer from the bystander effect, allowing these sacrileges to happen on our watch, just because we didn’t see other people rushing to defend the trees. When we diminish our web of life, we diminish ourselves. If a forest can be, in effect, a single organism, then it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that the very Earth itself is also a Gaia-type holistic system in which everything is connected – and that includes the humans.

In line with that thought, I’ll finish with a line from the book that sounds like a Zen koan:

“Who does the tree-hugger really hug, when he hugs a tree?”

 

Footnotes:

Julia Butterfly Hill

Please see also the inspiring autobiography, The Legacy of Luna, by Julia Butterfly Hill, who sat in a redwood tree for 738 days and I’m sure was the inspiration for the Overstory character of Maidenhair.

And check out the amazing work being done by Tree Sisters (not to be confused with The Sisters – our new website is launching soon!).

See also Paul Hawken’s book, Drawdown, which quantifies the impact of forest protection on CO2 levels: “more than 15 billion [trees] are cut down each year. Since humans began farming, the number of trees on earth has fallen by 46 percent. Carbon emissions from deforestation and associated land use change are estimated to be 10 to 15 percent of the world’s total… By protecting an additional 687 million acres of forest, this solution could avoid carbon dioxide emissions totaling 6.2 gigatons by 2050. Perhaps more importantly, this solution could bring the total protected forest area to almost 2.3 billion acres, securing an estimated protected stock of 245 gigatons of carbon, roughly equivalent to over 895 gigatons of carbon dioxide if released into the atmosphere.”

 

Other Stuff:

Last week I was at the Klosters Forum in Switzerland for a 3-day conference on plastic pollution in the oceans. We had an intense series of workshops to explore ways to move towards zero plastic escaping into the environment. Great to see this important issue getting the attention it deserves!

Next week I’m off to Mystery of the Mountains to talk about my ocean rowing adventures. If you happen to be in the Dolomites that week, I’d love to see you there!

 

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