I am reading Richard Powers’ The Overstory. It is one of those books I initially resisted because of all the accolades it has garnered but now that I am halfway through I can attest that they are well-deserved. It is a book about trees and the humans who exist beneath the trees. It is a book about life and death and all the nagging details that fall in between. It is a necessary book, one we should all be reading as we walk into the shadowlands, uncertain as to the fate of our species and the environment that supports us.
I was raised by trees. A lonely child in the woods, often neglected, a late-in-life child born into a family already raised. When I was a child, we were surrounded by oaks with a thick undergrowth of impenetrable palmettos. I lived at the edge of the woods, playing on the boundary of human residence and wilderness. The woods housed threatening creatures, or rather creatures that could do harm when threatened. I respected their space and never suffered from anything more than a mosquito bite and the occasional tick. The trees were my family, my guardians. The wind, water, and dirt were my teachers. It is no real surprise then that I ended up living in a country where trees are worshiped, where the natural elements are known to house spirits. (This is not to say that all trees are worshiped, that all elements are respected but I do think that having an animistic-based believe system will give the Japanese environment an advantage once the humans come to their collective senses. I did not come to Japan because of their animism but it definitely has helped me to feel more at home here.)
Once upon a time, I was a teenage-activist, full of righteous indignation over the plight of our planet. In high school, I felt powerful but when I left my small town for university, those powers faded, diluted by an indifferent population. My ideals unraveled and I fell headlong into anxiety and depression. In the midst of that period, I began working at a homeless shelter. I was working the front counter one night and reading a book about all the species that were vanishing under our watch and feeling rather hopeless. One of the clients came into the lobby to get some water and have a chat before bedtime. He asked me about what I was reading and I handed over the book for him to examine. He flipped through slowly, appreciating the photographs of the Amazon and Arctic Circle. Then he said, I would like to give a shit about these things, child, really I would. But I’ve got other things on my mind these days.
And that was really it, how I stopped focusing on the destruction that humans are wrecking and began to study the human condition. For how are humans just barely surviving supposed to give a shit about deforestation and habitat loss, about overfishing and the rising sea levels? Then you have the suburbanites, living in the comforting cocoon of materialistic acquisition, too detached from the elements to be concerned about anything other than furthering the acquisition of materials. And above them, the job-creators, the material manufacturers, whose ambitions distort their realities, making them feel as powerful as gods and therefore immune to the limits of their physical environment.
Thus I realized that it is too problematic to be solved with just recycling programs and bike lanes (two of the ideas that I helped to implement in my hometown). Within humanity exists the solution but humanity is complicated. It is easy to be overwhelmed when you study it, easy to forget where you are and what you are doing because while you are trying to examine the species you are also busy being a member of it. And so I am grateful to Richard Powers for writing a book that has served as a trail marker, helping me to orientate myself as a writer and artist, showing me that I am on the right path even if I can’t see what lies beyond the bend.