The Majesty of Trees

I was one of the lucky ones earlier this month when the moon moved between the earth and the sun and gave us the extraordinary experience of a total eclipse. The feeling of awe will stay with me forever and it reminded me of the last time I was that moved by nature – that struck by its wonder. My earlier experience was literary. It emerged from an unforgettable novel by American novelist Richard Powers, called The Overstory. Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Overstory in 2019.

The novel is about the relationships between its main characters and trees, be it all trees or one with a personal history. It’s about the splendour of the natural world and, equally, about its destruction. It’s also about eco-activism. The Overstory is memorable not only for what we learn about trees – specifically about how they communicate with each other – but also for what lives beneath their branches. Likewise, the characters, and the paths they take, might stay with you for as long as it takes a seedling to bear fruit.

I read the novel on a cruise through the Thousand Islands National Park with my husband on our old sailboat. Before I extracted myself from the tight berth each morning, I spent an hour reading under an open hatch with a book in one hand, a cup of tea in the other. The sailboat would circle the mooring ever so slowly. Through the hatch on one side, I would see open sky, on the other, the tops of trees on whichever island we had chosen to explore next.

Over breakfast, I would chatter non-stop about the part of the book I had just read (my husband read the book before I did). After breakfast, we would paddle to our chosen island to walk the forest trails. As we walked, that morning’s scenes would play themselves out – same scenes, different setting. I said to my husband one day, “It feels like there are nine of us on this cruise – you, me and The Overstory’s main characters.”

One of the book’s characters is Patricia Westerford, a scientist who studied trees. I can still remember walking in a particularly dense part of a forest and reciting as much of the book’s description of her as I could remember: “She walks in silence, crunching ten thousand invertebrates with every step…. The earth gives beneath her like a shot mattress.”

“Crunching ten thousand invertebrates” and a “shot mattress.” As a writer by profession, I am still inspired by the power of this passage. I am also interested in knowing more about the communication that exists between trees, a fascinating phenomenon that I did not fully understand until I read The Overstory.

To learn more, I have compiled a brief list of books on related topics, two non-fictions and two fictions. I suspect they are all worth reading if you, like me, are curious about the wonder of trees.

The first non-fiction is Finding the Mother Tree. Part memoir, part scientific exploration, it was written by Suzanne Simard, a Canadian scientist and professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia. Simard is considered a pioneer in the field of plant communication and intelligence. Even more interesting to me, she was the real-life inspiration for the Patricia Westerford character in The Overstory.

Same subject but less scientific is the The Hidden Life of Trees. This book is written by Peter Wohlleben, a German forester. He aimed to give readers an approachable account of how trees communicate and live in social networks. A number of his claims are based on science, including findings by Simard. Others are founded on observation and speculation. His attempt to reach readers through accessible, relatable language has generated criticism among some scientists, namely for anthropomorphism and unsubstantiated conclusions. But the author has also earned acclaim for sharing his passion and wonderment for the natural world with readers around the world.

Back to fiction, I recently started Barkskins, by American novelist and Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Annie Proulx. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that this might be the greatest environmental novel ever written. Proulx tells the stories of two young Frenchmen who leave France for New France in the 17th century and work as woodcutters, also known as barkskins. Proulx takes readers on a 300-year journey, as the central characters’ descendants take everything they can from the forests, without fear of consequence, and leave their successors with environmental destruction. One reviewer writes, “If Barkskins doesn’t bear exquisite witness to our species’ insatiable appetite for consumption, nothing can."

After Barkskins, I hope to read Greenwood, an award-winning novel by Canadian writer Michael Christie. Greenwood was longlisted for a Scotia Bank Giller Prize in 2019 and a finalist on Canada Reads in 2023. The novel is described as a “magnificent generational saga that charts a family's rise and fall, its secrets and inherited crimes, and the conflicted relationship with the source of its fortune – trees.”

Perhaps you will join me on this path of discovery and, if you have books to add to this list, we would love to hear your suggestions.