What's Tony Thinking

The Trees Are Talking


The trees are talking. Are we listening?

That might be the simple way to sum up Richard Powers big, ambitious novel, The Overstory. 

My book group read it this month and discussed it last night. Responses to The Overstory ranged from “love it” to “hate it” and every thing in between.

Powers is clearly a gifted writer, whose prose is often incandescent. And he has nine main characters who are slowly introduced and then (most of them) brought together by an environmental protest set in the California Redwoods, and subsequently more violent environmental activism in Oregon.

Powers takes on big issues. How people’s minds are changed, if they are, being one. Lonely prophets is another. And a third, an economy that is all about growth, but to what end? And he depicts trees that communicate to one another and to human beings that are paying attention.

When writing a novel about social and political issues, as Powers is, the line between preaching — in the negative sense of that word — and art is a fine one. Will The Overstory do for climate change what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for slavery and abolition? Is something like that Powers’ intention?

Of course, there are other literary artists taking on the issues of the environment and climate change. I believe I mentioned Kathleen Dean Moore’s novel Piano Tide. Set in Alaska, Moore’s canvas isn’t so large as the one Powers creates, but it too sounds a warning that we seem to be finding it difficult to hear or to heed. Another, is Barkskins by Annie Proulx, which I’ve not read.

As I was working my way through the 502 pages of The Overstory an interesting news article appeared in the Wallowa County Chieftain. The Chieftain comes to us weekly from Enterprise, Oregon. As readers know, our family roots and cabin are there in Wallowa County, a somewhat remote location in far northeastern Oregon.

It seems that in the 1970’s Congress passed legislation that encouraged institutional investors to diversify their portfolios into timber. This resulted in something called Timberland Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs) which supplanted lumber companies like Boise Cascade.

While readers of books like The Overstory might be inclined to cast such lumber companies as the bad guys, it turns out forests were better managed under their stewardship than that of the newer TIMO model with its large but distant institutional investors, like Hancock Forest Management based in Boston.

Such investors, using the TIMO model, “have often harvested much faster than forests can replenish, and have managed a patchwork of parcels rather than the forest as a whole,” according to The Chieftain article.

Fifth generation rancher and resource management professional, Caleb Howard, told the Chieftain that these management practices, designed to maximize investor return, had been so aggressive that “we’re running into a pretty significant stop. The last number I heard was in five years we’ll see a pretty significant change.”

The short summary is that the shift from a Boise Cascade to a Hancock TIMO has meant trees are being harvested way faster than they can be replenished. And forests are not managed as a whole but as a hodgepodge of subdivided parts.

The arguments from Wallowa County rancher, Caleb Howard, and novelist, Richard Powers, are remarkably similar. Both are saying that we’re running out of time. An end is in sight.

Will we wake up? Powers does not seem optimistic.

One of things I most enjoy about our cabin in the Wallowa’s is planting and tending trees. We’ve planted fourteen trees since Linda and I became the current generation of stewards in 2012. Aspen, Douglas Fir, Spruce, River Birch, White Fir and Incense Cedar are among the trees we have planted and transplanted. There’s also a grove of thirty fir and spruce near us that I tend by fertilizing, trimming and thinning.

What Richard Powers is saying is that however much I and others may imagine ourselves to be tending the trees, the trees are also tending us. They are marvelous creatures upon which we rely. They have lives and stories of their own. They are not reducible to a means to our own often short-sighted ends.





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