Bits and bobs from The Overstory, by Richard Powers:
“You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit. “How do we convince people that we’re right?”
The newest Cascadian takes the bait. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
. . . which reminds me of e. e. cummings:
told him:i told
him;we told him
(he didn’t believe it,no
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth
el;in the top of his head:to tell
Another debatable claim—
The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.
—seems increasingly dubious as this long, sprawling novel continues. Powers moves us most when showing us how much we have been missing in our understanding of nature—
“We scientists are taught never to look for ourselves in other species. So we make sure nothing looks like us! Until a short while ago, we didn’t even let chimpanzees have consciousness, let alone dogs or dolphins. Only man, you see: only man could know enough to want things. But believe me: trees want something from us, just as we’ve always wanted things from them. This isn’t mystical. The ‘environment’ is alive—a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other. . . . Flowers shape bees as much as bees shape flowers. Berries may compete to be eaten more than animals compete to eat them. A thorn acacia makes sugary protein treats to feed and enslave the ants who guard it. Fruit-bearing plants trick us into distributing their seeds, and ripening fruit led to color vision. In teaching us how to find their bait, trees taught us to see that the sky is blue. Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been Homo sapiens.”
—and by the end it is this overwhelming vision that sticks. The human dramas, which may have initially drawn us in to the story, have lost their power. We want to go into the woods, sit at the base of a tree, and just listen.
In W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), this prescient and evocative passage seems to speak directly to us in the summer of 2023:
Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of these lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has all been combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread. In Italy, France and Spain, in Hungary, Poland and Lithuania, in Canada and California, summer fires consume whole forests, not to mention the great conflagration in the tropics that is never extinguished. A few years ago, on a Greek island that was wooded as recently as 1900, I observed the speed with which a blaze runs through dry vegetation. A short distance from the harbour town where I was staying, I stood by the roadside with a group of agitated men, the blackness behind us and before us, far below at the bottom of a gorge, the fire, whipped up by the wind, racing, leaping, and already climbing the steep slopes. And I shall never forget the junipers, dark against the glow, going up in flames one after the other as if they were tinder the moment the first tongues of fire licked at them, with a dull thudding sound like an explosion, and then promptly collapsing in a silent shower of sparks.
Has any phrase ever conveyed the human condition more succinctly than the blackness behind us and before us?
I know some of you out there are worried about climate change.
I’m here to help.
If it gets too hot, here’s what to do. Go out to your SUV, start her up, and flick on the AC. Stay in there until you’re cooled down.
Alternatively, if it’s too cold, here’s what to do. Go out to your SUV, start her up, and turn on the heater. Stay in there until you feel warm again.
Now, somebody’s going to say these are just short-term solutions, and I have to admit, that’s true. So, if you get tired of sitting in your car, here’s what you do.
It it’s too hot, go to the airport and catch a flight to someplace nice and cool.
If it’s too cold, go to the airport and catch a flight to someplace nice and warm.
Whatever you do, don’t let this climate change thing force you to change the way you like to live. Be the boss!
Happy to help.