“What’s crazier–plants speaking, or humans listening?”

An excerpt from The Overstory by Richard Powers, pp. 318-322, read by Steph.


“A lot of evidence suggests that group loyalty interferes with reason.”

Maidenhair and Watchman trade smirks, like he’s just told them that science has proven that the atmosphere is mostly air.

“People make reality. Hydroelectric dams. Undersea tunnels. Supersonic transport. Tough to stand against that.”

Watchman smiles, tired. “We don’t make reality. We just evade it. So far. By looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won’t be able to pay.”

Adam can’t decide whether to smile or nod. He knows only that these people—the tiny few immune to consensual reality—have a secret he needs to understand.

Maidenhair inspects Adam, as through a lab’s two way mirror.

“Can I ask you something else?”

“Anything you want.”

“It’s a simple question. How long do you think we have?”

He doesn’t understand. He looks to Watchman, but the man, too, is waiting for his answer. “I don’t know.”

“In your heart of hearts. How long before we pull the place down around us?”

Her words embarrass Adam. It’s a question for undergrad dorms. For bar rooms late on a Saturday night. He has let the situation get away from him, and none of this—the trespass through private land, the ascent, this fuzzy conversation—can be worth the two extra data points. He looks away, out on the ravaged redwoods. “Really. I don’t know.”

“Do you believe human beings are using resources faster than the world can replace them?”

The question seems so far beyond calculation it’s meaningless. Then some small jam in him dislodges. And it’s like an unblinding. “Yes.”

“Thank you!” She’s pleased with her overgrown pupil. He grins back. Maidenhair’s head bobs forward and her eyebrows flair. “And would you say that the rate is falling or rising?”

He has seen the graphs, everyone has. Ignition has only just started.

“It’s so simple,” she says, “So obvious. Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it. So the authority of people is bankrupt.” Maidenhair fixes him with a look between interest and pity. Adam just wants the cradle to stop rocking, “Is the house on fire?”

`A shrug, a sideways pull of the lips. “Yes.”

“And you want to observe the handful of people who are screaming, Put it out, when everyone else is happy watching things burn.”

A minute ago, this woman was the subject of Adam’s observational study. Now he wants to confide in her. “It has a name. We call it the bystander effect. I once let my professor die because no one else in the lecture hall stood up. The larger the group…”

“. . . the harder it is to cry, Fire?

“Because if there were a real problem, surely someone—”

“—or lots of people would already have—”

“—with six billion other—”

“Six? Try seven. Fifteen, in a few years. We’ll soon be eating two thirds of the planets’ net productivity. Demand for wood has tripled in our lifetime.”

“Can’t tap the brakes when you’re about to hit the wall.”

“Easier to poke your eyes out.”

The distant snarl breaks off, audible again in silence. The entire study begins to seem to Adam like a distraction. He needs to study illness on an unimaginable scale, an illness no bystander could even see to recognize.

Maidenhair breaks the silence, “We aren’t alone. Others are trying to reach us. I can hear them.”

From Adam’s neck down to the small of his back, hairs rise. He’s huge with fur. But the signal is invisible. Lost in evolution. “Hear who?”

“I don’t know, the trees, the life force.”

“You mean talking? Out loud?”

She strokes a bough as if it’s a pet. “Not out loud. More like a Greek chorus in my head.” She looks at Adam, her face as clear as if she just asked him to stay for dinner. “I died. I was electrocuted in my bed. My heart stopped. I came back and started hearing them.”

Adam turns to Watchman for a sanity check. But the bearded prophet only arches his brows.

Maidenhair taps the questionnaire. “I suppose you have your answer now about the psychology of world-savers?”

Watchman touches her shoulder. “What’s crazier—plants speaking, or humans listening?”

Adam doesn’t hear. He’s just now tuning into something that has long been hiding in plain sight. He says, to no one. “I talk out loud sometimes. To my sister. She disappeared when I was little.”

“Well, okay then, can we study you?”

A truth bends near him, one that his discipline will never find. Consciousness itself is a flavor of madness, set against the thoughts of the green world. Adam puts out his hands to steady himself and touches only a swaying twig. Held high up above the vanishingly distant surface by a creature who should want him dead. His brain spins. The tree has dragged him. He’s twirling again by a cord the width of a vine. He fixes on the woman’s face as if some last desperate act of personality-reading might still protect him. “What . . . ? What are they saying? The trees.”

She tries to tell him.


Recorded July 24, 2020

Location: Belchertown, MA

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