The People in the Trees




THE REDBUDS BLOOM for the last time.

Years of legal disputes come to an end. The Planning Board has reviewed the Environmental Impact Statement and has proposed several alternatives to the university’s plan to build a surface parking lot where the woods are, but the university finds the Board’s recommendations untenable, too expensive, too difficult, inefficient. So it sues. Meanwhile, the Preservation Commission finds the site — two acres of oak trees and black walnuts with a scrubby understory of redbuds on the edge of campus — historically significant and moves to protect it from development. But the university can see no other way to accommodate students’ cars, so it sues the Commission too. The university wins.

We have been talking about what we will do when all the legal means to stop the university have been exhausted. We know that, after it wins in court, all the university will need are building permits, which we believe will take a few weeks to acquire. We start to gather in the co-op up the hill from the woods. We hold endless meetings over donated casseroles to sketch out our options. How can we persuade, or pressure, university administrators that a student parking lot is not the best way to serve their students, or the world where those students will reside? It becomes clear that some of us will probably have to use our bodies.

Sophia holds civil disobedience trainings in the co-op. I learn how to go limp. I learn how to be dragged. I am told how to take pepper spray to the eyes, but Sophia does not harp on this. Not because she does not expect it to happen. But there is not much in the way of technique to teach. You simply squeeze your eyes closed and tolerate it until you can’t.

Psyrx arrives. He materializes as if from a different planet. We know almost nothing about him, including his given name. What we do know is that he used to live in California, where he spent years sitting in the redwoods, defending the ancient giants from loggers. He teaches us the phrase forest defense, tells us this is what we are doing.

The day he arrives, he starts building a platform that we will hoist 25 feet into the black walnut on the street-facing edge of the woods. Then he teaches us how to climb. I had spent much of my childhood learning how to fly. I could flip and twist on a balance beam; I could fling myself off a high bar and somersault off a vault. So when Psyrx straps me into a harness and clips me onto ropes and tells me to lean slightly back and use my toes for lift and pull myself into the canopy, linking myself to the trees, it is not so strange to me at all.

We do not think an attack is imminent, but we are wrong. We have begun to occupy the woods; several people sleep there each night. But when a handful of contractors arrive with chainsaws, we are caught off guard. Someone runs into the co-op and screams that they are cutting down the woods, and a dozen of us sprint down the hill and take up positions. Our infrastructure is incomplete; there’s nothing to lock to; there’s only one platform. So we just stand there, screaming at them to stop cutting. I hear trees near the road being sawed, cracking and falling. Their leaves sound like paintbrushes slapping each other on their way down.

By the time Psyrx — in the rush forgoing his harness — has free-climbed the black walnut, the sky has darkened and the wind has whipped up. A storm is coming. By the time he has wrapped a rope around his neck and dared the men to keep cutting and risk accidentally hanging him, the storm is full on. There is thunder and lightning, and we know that our standoff with the contractors has become as much about who will dare to stay in the woods during a lightning storm as about who has a right to the trees. In the thrashing rain, a university administrator arrives and gets her first look at Psyrx, his tie-dye shirt and hemp necklace soaked through, a rope around his neck. She calls off the contractors. She tells Aaron that there’s been some kind of misunderstanding. They were not supposed to start cutting today. No one believes her.

That night we make a banner that says: PEOPLE IN THE TREES, PLEASE DON’T KILL US.

¤

A reader of Richard Powers’s new novel The Overstory may find herself baffled by the structure of the narrative. The novel’s first eight chapters each focus on a different character. There’s Nicholas Hoel, whose great-great-great grandfather travels from Norway to Brooklyn to Iowa, where he plants an American chestnut in a place so remote that the devastating blight skips over it. His descendants photograph the miracle of the living tree every month for 70 years. There’s Mimi Ma, whose father arrives from China and settles in Pittsburgh. The father falls in love with the great majesty of Yosemite and Yellowstone and takes his three daughters, including Mimi, on camping adventures every year of their youth. He plants a mulberry tree in their yard, and when it can no longer live, neither can he. And Adam Appich and Ray Brinkman and Olivia Vandergriff and so on — each character placed in deep context, of the long history of migration, of lineage, of the randomness of experience, whose lives are touched by trees. While we might be inclined to call these narratives their backstories, that would be wrong. They are not backstories. They are understories.

For the first two hundred pages of the novel, the characters do not meet. (Some never meet.) The deep stories of how they came to be who and where they are read less like the opening of a novel and more like a collection of short stories — connected by theme but not by plot or relationships. Until, that is, a hundred pages in when we meet Patricia Westerford. Isolated and interior on account of speech and hearing impediments, Patricia grows up under the loving care of her father, an agricultural extension agent who tows his daughter from farm to farm across southeastern Ohio. When Patricia loses him, she finds trees, and finds that he has taught her to listen to them.

¤

What Patricia cannot hear in the human world she can hear in the forest, and in graduate school, Patricia discovers a new scientific truth, one which no one believes — that trees talk to each other. They send out warning signals when they are under attack; they pass information along at their roots. Trees are not individuals, Patricia discovers, and forests are not composed of a collection of singular organisms. The forest is the organism, one of nearly unfathomable complexity and interconnection. Patricia’s ecological discovery is not only the central theme and political point of the novel. It is the novel’s structural conceit.

As Powers’s characters begin to weave in and out of each other’s lives, as their stories and the long histories they carry with them start to talk to each other, it becomes clear that they were never really separate. Patricia’s insight is produced midway through the novel, which plays a bit of a trick on the reader, for it is only then that the reader realizes that she has been misperceiving the novel from the beginning. Her perception of the characters’ separateness has been wrong, false. She has not understood that long before the characters come into contact with each other, they have been in contact with each other. Their stories are no more individual than trees in a forest. As the characters’ understories have been growing into thick brush, so too has their collective overstory — the story that they, as a human forest, will end up writing together. She has been led by the novel into the myth of separateness and has been led back out again.

From the outset, the characters have been signaling to each other, across great sweeps of time and distance, across their wrenching isolations. They have been sharing information through their roots. We are under attack, they are saying. We are all under attack.

¤

Tim takes me into the basement of the co-op, where he and Lily are making something. He hands me a bandana and tells me to cover my nose and mouth. Around me are bags of sand and gravel and cement, five-gallon paint buckets, and a clutter of different pipes. We mix the dry ingredients in a bucket, add water, and stir. Then I hold a pipe with a pencil-sized metal bar welded to its base in the middle of an empty bucket. The pipe is approximately the diameter of my arm. Tim pours the wet concrete around the pipe. We wait for two days for it to set. Then in the middle of the second night, we bury it in the woods.

We bury seven more.

We are still working every angle. Aaron has been meeting with administrators. Marie, a professor of religion, has set up a free coffee and bagel stand on the edge of the woods, with which she hopes to draw people into the cause. We build four platforms and invite local families to come paint them before we mount them in the trees. The best one is the Hexagon. We dip our hands in paint and print them on the bottom. We hope the university administrators will see the strength of this community; might even come to see that — at some depth — they are already a part of it.

Someone figures out that the university’s Board of Trustees is meeting at the alumni club in Manhattan. It’s 9:00 p.m. when an affinity group forms to go lobby them. We leave at midnight and arrive at dawn. We shower at Eliza’s parents’ house in Brooklyn and put on the only respectable clothes we have, which in my case is an ill-fitting patchwork dress bought off the Ithaca Commons and Birkenstocks. Five of us weasel into the club building just as the Trustees are arriving. We intercept them, we ask them if they’ve heard of the tree sit in Redbud Woods, we ask them if they think that the university needs a parking lot more than it needs a wild woods of spring-flowering trees. The administrator Aaron has been meeting with, the same one who called a truce in the storm, arrives and is absolutely furious at seeing us in the chandeliered foyer of the alumni club. She threatens to end negotiations and accuses us of operating in bad faith, but she never follows through on her threats. Perhaps because not a single Board member seems to care about the trees.

¤

One of the characters in The Overstory is an academic psychologist. An outcast child, Adam Appich takes to ants and flowers and trees, then to rule-breaking, then to law-breaking. His intractable disaffection could have taken him in many directions, but it happens to take him to the study of the human mind, the study of disaffection itself. When in college he watches a roomful of psychology students watch his beloved professor die without springing into action, Adam dedicates himself to the study of blindness: How can you watch someone or something die without really seeing it? How do whole groups, whole populations, turn a blind eye on what they know is happening? How do you break from the group and truly see?

Adam’s pursuit of this question leads him into the fight over the California redwoods, onto a platform 200 feet in the air, where his story intersects with the novel’s other characters. He has come to study the psychologies of the tree-sitters. These people, he realizes, are the ones who think they can see, the ones who cannot not see what is happening — that humans are killing the planet, killing off their own species. Adam realizes that, in the mind of a tree-sitter, who appears absolutely insane to most observers, not defending the forest represents a collective insanity. While the tree-sitters are moved by the majesty of the ancient redwoods, the mind-blowing wonder of their billion-year evolutionary history, their argument for forest defense is not primarily mystical or aesthetic — it is logical. It is the height of human insanity and illogic, they argue, to destroy the very thing that gives you life. Once Adam sees this truth, he cannot unsee it, and he realizes that his detached academic approach effectively places him in the group of those who will not see and will not act, the willfully blind. So he jumps ship. How could we have been so blind?

¤

The paddy wagon arrives and half a dozen police officers spill out. Someone sends out the signal — it’s on. This time we are ready. There are people on every platform and people at every lockbox. I am at the lockbox nearest the road — someone thought I would be a good person to talk to the press, although I do not feel especially prepared to do this. Around my wrist is a 12-inch chain, wrapped once like a bracelet and hooked tight. It has a long tail, and at the end of the tail is a carabiner that I can operate with my fingers. I lay on my belly and reach my arm down into the pipe, burying it nearly to the armpit. I snap the carabiner to the metal bar at the base of the box and am rooted. My arm is snug in the pipe; neither hand nor tool can reach inside to unhook me. Only my fingers have access to the mechanism. This means that the only way you can move me is if you hurt me and I “consent” to release the lock with my fingers. One idea is that if the police hurt us and we unlock from pain, this will still constitute a win — a university can’t pepper spray students without repercussions, we think. While the university might not see its relationship to the woods, won’t it admit its relationship to us?

Our other idea is that none of us will move until the university calls off the parking lot.

The police start building a fence around the woods. They drill in six-foot metal stakes and wrap it with orange plastic fencing. They are about halfway around the woods when the sun starts to set. They stop and, much to our surprise, set up camp in the woods. Apparently they are staying the night.

They finish the fence the next day, and by this time a hundred people are milling around inside of it. There’s a massive pile of donated food at the curb — Nilla wafers, tortilla chips, hummus, fruit. Local restaurants have been sending up bagels and leftovers. Because I cannot walk, people bring me food and I eat freely, I eat for free. I am fed.

Arrests begin the next day. The police, some of the same ones who have also been staying in the woods, announce that anyone inside the fence will be arrested. If you don’t want to be arrested, they say, you need to the leave the fenced-in area. But more people come in than leave. Professors come in, the former mayor of Ithaca comes in. Parents leave their children with friends on the other side of the fence and come in. The police charge the hundred people standing inside the fence with trespassing misdemeanors and disperse them. Then they start arresting the people in the trees.

Eliza is first. She has been in the black walnut for two days. She wears a red T-shirt — the universal sign that you are a “redbuddy” — with the sleeves rolled up into a tank top. She has her sandy hair pulled back but the wisps at her temples fall in a loose frame around her face. I am below her at a 30-degree angle; above me I see several buckets and sawed-off soda bottles on pulleys, used to send food and water up and to send waste down. Eliza’s climbing ropes and harness are visible through the slits in the platform. Three police officers crane their necks and through a megaphone read Eliza her rights and then tell her she is under arrest. They arrest all of us in the same way, but we do not go to jail because they cannot move us.

On the third morning, I am having a problem with my hand. It has rained, and the bottom of the lockbox has collected an inch or two of water, which my hand is sitting in. I can tell that the water has pruned it, and my skin and joints are chilled and dank. There’s a musky odor wafting up from underground. But we fear leaving the lockbox unattended even for a second, fear that I will be arrested and removed, fear that the box will be captured by the police — which we dread most of all because we believe that they don’t yet understand the buried contraption or the release mechanism and we don’t want them to figure it out. So Mateo, an engineering student, fashions a long, pliable straw, thin enough to slide down the hole next to my arm. He sucks the murk into his mouth and spits it onto the grass. He spits mouthful after mouthful of foul water onto the grass until the water is gone, and my hand can dry out.

They arrest us again.

(Years later, this is the example I will use to teach the obfuscations of passive voice in my freshman writing courses. “What’s the difference,” I will ask, “between The protesters were arrested and The police arrested the protesters?”)

That night they go after the Hexagon. We have heard rumors that the cops have been learning how to climb, but we don’t really believe it. But at 2:00 a.m. on the third night, I awake to rustling and scraping sounds and cannot call to mind an animal that makes noises like that. Then I see him. In the headlights of a police car, an officer has rigged a harness and climbing ropes and is ascending to the platform, which for reasons I do not understand has been left empty. A chorus of cops and plainclothes women are circled up beneath him, rooting him on in muted whoops. I watch him hack at two of the ropes that secure the platform to the tree, and I realize that if the Hexagon falls, I am well within the range of rocketing shards of wood or cantering, runaway pieces. I scream and scream, then Eliza starts screaming. The officer stops sawing and descends, his mission — to render the Hex unusable, left drooping off two feeble-looking threads — an unequivocal success. But I can still see our handprints.

¤

When, near the end of The Overstory, Adam Appich goes to federal prison for eco-terrorism, Ray Brinkman, a former property lawyer who has been rendered silent by a stroke, sees with perfect clarity the legal case that must be made in Adam’s defense.

In mounting excitement, he sees how he must win the case. 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. 

The legal defense of Adam Appich is self-defense. Forest defense is self-defense.

¤

When I was about 10, my sister and I decided to turn the tree in our backyard and the shaded area around it into a restaurant. Then we changed our minds and decided to make it a Girls Only clubhouse. The tree was in the far back corner of the yard and was by far the tallest on the property, and the area beneath it was barren of grass, perhaps on account of the shade it cast. We started our clubhouse renovations by cleaning out the grounds, using my mother’s broom to brush away pine needles and candy wrappers and white hydrangea petals that had floated over from the neighbor’s yard. We made signs declaring the club’s intention and exclusive membership, and then we went around the neighborhood and recruited girls to the club. At our first meeting, we distributed jobs — or, more accurately, my sister, who was incontrovertibly the boss, distributed jobs. She assigned herself to president, Lindsey to treasurer, Tierney to secretary, and me to lookout. She gave me this job because my gymnastics training had made me the best climber of the group, and I already loved to spend long hours by myself, reading. I accepted the job with zeal, and for weeks that summer, solitary and vigilant, I loaded books into my backpack and climbed into the canopy of the tree and read and looked out for boys and other enemies.

Perhaps this is my understory, the personal history that makes it inevitable that when the attack is signaled and people are asked to lay down in front of bulldozers and backhoes and police officers, it is me at the front of defense. I’m not sure. But I do know that at 21 I had never been so reflexively certain of anything — that a scrubby woods of redbuds and black walnuts and oaks was incomparably more necessary than a parking lot. As the years since then have passed, as the seas have risen and life has begun to cook, as the enemies of the trees have come to be more clearly defined, this has only become more true, and of it I have only become more convinced.

¤

Powers’s novel does not have a climax in any traditional sense. The novel does not rise, grow tense, combust, resolve, and fall as we expect novels to do. Because the structural template of the novel is a forest, which swerves and branches off and migrates and is reborn and behaves in often inexplicable ways, and because the relevant measure of time in the novel is the speed of trees, the narrative mounts and flows through multiple, slow-moving, episodic conflicts. With each spasmodic episode, Powers evokes the novel’s essential conflict and raison d’être: the epoch-defining death-match between humanity and the planet, this most ironic of all wars, this ridiculous war in which we lose every time we win.

Thus there is more novel even after what seems like it must be the story’s most dramatic moment: the moment Nicholas Hoel, who has taken the tree name Watchman, and Olivia Vandergriff, who has become Maidenhair, and Adam Appich, who becomes Maple, are attacked in the redwood they have been defending. Bulldozers ram the base of the tree, loggers prepare a fall bed for the giant, and a helicopter swoops in next to the tree sitters, who steel themselves against the machine’s thrashing blades by wrapping their arms and legs around the tree’s stalwart branches. Watchman and Maidenhair have been living in the tree for a year, and they have had many sane conversations with loggers over that time. “What’s the matter with you? Why do you hate people?” one logger asks Maidenhair. “What are you talking about? We’re doing this for people!” she replies. But now the men are using force, the tree is coming down, and the men in the helicopter are giving them one last chance to descend, giving them one final moment of choice. It is Adam who can’t bear the noise and menace of helicopter blades and the bass vibrations of battering rams, Adam who won’t stand by and watch them die as he and his classmates had watched their professor die, Adam who signals to the others that their time is up, the occupation is over.

And yet the novel is far from over, and the characters have only begun their processes of becoming. Powers has slowed this process way down, offering us characters who grow and change with the slowness and immanence of trees. And the conflict, The Conflict, is only ever widening, deepening, intensifying. The choice in the tree, the one offered by the loggers as a last chance — this is not a last chance. It is one of the many chances the characters have to act, eyes wide open, on behalf of the trees, which is to say on behalf of themselves.

¤

When a backhoe hits a tree, it is nothing like a cartoon. The tree does not split violently in half, and it does not splinter at the breaking point, and it does not slam to the ground. When a backhoe hits a tree, it is more like a snowplow pushing wet snow or a gargantuan lawnmower shoving through tall grass. You think there will be something hysterical about it, or at least something fast. You think it will sound like a car accident, you think you will be able to hear it from a mile away. But it is a different kind of vicious than you thought. The destruction is slow. Then, quite suddenly, the earth is bald.

I sit on the sidewalk with Eliza and Aaron and watch the trees come down. After six days, we have traded the woods for some very practical things — free bus passes for all incoming students, the establishment of a sustainability office at the university, and the formation of a committee to study town relations. We’ve agreed to this because we no longer think we can win, and if we can’t save the woods, we figure we should settle for what seems like good and lasting institutional change. But in reality, nothing feels good about the deal. It feels like an abject loss. I weep, and we weep together, and I pull my knees up to my chest, and the woods are still on my hands.

¤

Lynne Feeley is a lecturer in the History & Literature Program at Harvard University.


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