A reading from The Overstory by Richard Powers. 2018, p. 114-115
In this way, acorn animism turned bit by bit into its offspring, botany. She becomes her father’s star and only pupil for the simple reason that she alone, of all the family, sees what he knows: plants are willful and crafty and after something, just like people. He tells her, on their drives, about all the oblique miracles that green can devise. People have no corner on curious behavior. Other creatures—bigger, slower, older, more durable—call the shots, make the weather, feed creation and create the very air.
“It’s a great idea, trees. So great that evolution keeps inventing it, again and again.” He teaches her to tell a shellbark from a shagbark hickory. No one else at her school can even tell a hickory from a hop hornbeam. The fact strikes her as bizarre. “Kids in my class think a black walnut looks just like a white ash. Are they blind?
“Plant blind. Adam’s curse. We only see things that look like us. Sad story, ain’t it, kiddo?”
Her father has a little trouble with Homo sapiens himself. He’s caught between fine folks whose family farms are failing to subdue the earth and companies that want to sell them the arsenal to bring about total domination. When the frustrations of the day grow too much for him, he sighs and says, for Patty’s impaired ears alone, “ah, buy me a hillside that slopes away from town.”
They drive through a land once covered in dark beech forest. “Best tree you could ever want to see.” Strong and wide but full of grace, flaring out nobley at the base, into its own plinth. Generous with nuts that feed all comers. Its smooth, white-gray trunk more like stone than wood. The parchment-colored leaves riding out the winter—marcescent, he tells her—shining out against the neighboring bare hardwoods. Elegant with sturdy boughs so much like human arms, lifting upward at the tips like hands proffering. Hazy and pale in spring, but in autumn its flat, wide sprays bathe the air in gold.
“What happened to them?” The girls words thicken when sadness weighs them down.
“We did.” She thinks she hears her father sigh, though he never takes his eyes off the road. “The beech told the farmer where to plow. Limestone underneath, covered in the best, darkest loam the field could want.”
They drive from farm to farm, between last year’s blights and next year’s vanishing topsoil. He shows her extraordinary things: the spreading cambium of a sycamore that swallowed up the crossbar of an old Schwinn someone left leaning against it decades ago. Two elms that draped their arms around each other and became one tree.
“We know so little about how trees grow. Almost nothing about how they bloom and branch and shed and heal themselves. We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.”
Her father is her water, air, earth and sun. He teaches her how to see a tree, the living sheath of cells underneath every square inch of bark doing things no man has yet figured out. He drives them to a copse of spared hardwoods in the bottoms of a slow stream. “Here! Look at this. Look at this! “ A patch of narrow stalks, each with big drooping leaves. A sheepdog of trees. He makes her sniff the giant spoonlike foliage, crushed. It smells acrid, like blacktop. He picks up a thick yellow pickle from the ground and holds it to her. She has rarely seen him so excited. He takes his army knife and cuts the fruit in half, exposing the buttery pulp and shiny black seeds. The flesh makes her want to scream with pleasure. But her mouth is full of butterscotch pudding.
“Pawpaw! The only tropical fruit ever to escape the tropics. Biggest, best, weirdest, wildest, native fruit this continent ever made. Growing native right here in Ohio. And nobody knows!”
They know. The girl and her father. She’ll never tell anyone the location of this patch. It will be theirs alone, fall after prairieibanana fall.
Watching the man, hard-of-hearing, hard-of-speech Patty learns that real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beaches in a breeze. As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.
Recorded July 10, 2020
Location: Belchertown, MA