Category Archives: nature

“The Overstory” and The Gift of Hope

bkspowers2018

“What does life want from us,” asks one of the characters in Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a fictionalized ode to trees, which celebrates their value to the planet and all its life forms.

A writer friend once told me novels are either “character-driven” or “plot-driven.”  The Overstory is neither.  It is “message-driven.”  It suggests that humankind, which has been so destructive to the planet, can become a healing force through individual and group respect for all its life forms, most specifically its trees and forests.  This is Powers’ twelfth novel, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.   Powers claims The Overstory represents the culmination of his career.

The book’s nine main human characters come together, either physically, or through reputation, following unique experiences with trees, or a tree, and subsequent dedication to saving them.  Nicholas Hoel grows up in on a farm in Iowa, where one of the last surviving American chestnuts has been on the family farm over a hundred years.  Douglas, a Vietnam vet, was saved by a banyan tree when his parachute landed in it.  Patricia Westerford, a PhD botanist, began learning the secrets of nature from her father, who was a county extension agent.  Westerford translates the language of the forest into imagery mere human beings can understand.  Olivia is the awakened tree spirit after a near-death experience from accidental electrocution.

A key feature, for me, is the loose organizations of individuals formed for a shared purpose and one larger than themselves and larger than humanity.  The sense of cooperation with nature transcends today’s prevalent, commercialized attitude of dominating and subduing it.

The human characters of the book are mostly damaged, either physically or emotionally, and in search of a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.  Each has a piece of the puzzle, that put together, reveals the Tree of Life and some of its many budding branches. That the main characters have or develop serious disabilities suggests human limitations do not prevent individuals from accomplishing great and enduring things.

hickoryfall121716

Hickory                                           kco2016

The book also reveals an expanded sense of time, based on the long view of trees over millennia and generations.  It’s appropriate that the characters age, with some dying, during the course of the novel.  It’s appropriate that long-term—from human but not tree perspective—consequences ensue from the actions of youth.  The book emphasizes that life is long, if you’re a tree or a forest, and if humanity doesn’t raze you or incinerate you to create junk mail and GMO row crops for export.

While the book’s style is not dogmatic, the characters exhibit an aura of spirituality, animism, or tribal devotion for the delicately interwoven life forms that contribute to the forests’ integrity.

The enormity of the research Powers must have put into the book humbles me, yet he does it all so gracefully that it never comes across as sanctimonious or condescending.  It’s as though he has adopted the quiet wisdom of his ancient sylvan subjects.

On the surface, the ending is anticlimactic, but on a deeper level it plants seeds of consciousness, which I suspect will grow in the “long time” span of trees.  The individual characters grow old, and they disperse.  Only Neelay, the paraplegic, continues to create idyllic forest-loving computer games that seek to build communication between man and nature.  The implication is that artificial intelligence will save mankind from itself, through amassed data and algorithms that sort through it to consolidate understanding.  But Neelay’s solution is only one bud on the ever-branching tree of life.

The Overstory has changed my attitude in a profound way.  I found the book inspiring because the author demonstrates a cooperative way to generate enthusiasm beyond the gloom and doom that characterizes today.  He does it by showing the government for the self-serving corporate enabler it is, and by showing how individual and small group initiative has the power to shift consciousness individually but also collectively over time.

pecanmoss

Looking up:  Pecan with Spanish moss                                   kco2006

One of the book’s most powerful draws is its brutal recognition of its characters’ flaws, even as they perform acts that bring on their own downfall.  Ultimately, the book is growth-directed but in unpredictable ways.  Just as trees branch and bud, The Overstory grows in imagination even after its end.  Maybe that’s the message:  it plants a seed in human consciousness, that un-imagined answers are within reach, but we need to open our senses to them.  You don’t learn about life by destroying it and putting it under a microscope.

Somewhere between religion and science, there may be a path toward self-and-planetary sustainment.  Maybe that’s my take-home message:  it doesn’t come from above, an external authority, or any experts.  It comes from the heart and from an appreciation of life for its own sake.

DSC02128

 

 

 

 

Rain and Mosquitoes

Anyone who believes humankind is at the top of the food chain does not live around mosquitoes.  In fact, if you believe my former microbiology professor, we have 1012 human cells, and 1013 microbial cells, so we are only ten percent human.  Perhaps we are merely mini-universes for the skin and gut flora, and the viruses and bacteria that make our respiratory tracts and other organic neighborhoods their homes.  Bottom line is humankind’s highest and best purpose may be to provide food and habitat for insects, viruses, and unicellular organisms.

This brings me to monotheism, the anthro-centric belief in a male-like supreme being who is detached and dominant, competitive, and paternalistic, omniscient, omnipotent, and perfect.

What does the monotheistic tradition have to do with mosquitoes, a reasonable person might ask.  Well, this God, according to tradition, has placed man above the animals, nature, and certainly above the lowly insects, bacteria, and viruses.  This God also must think cruelty is funny, because He torments man and woman with these miniature vampires that He could eradicate with a flip of a life-switch, if He so chose.  No, instead, He puts humanity in the position of alleviating his own misery through insecticides like malathion, or genetic engineering to produce sterile male mosquitoes under patent, for release in Key West, Florida.

In other words, this control-freak God, who seems to enjoy stirring up wars between the competitive monotheists descended from The Fall, must love mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, sand gnats, horseflies, lice, mites, and other fast-mutating species, more than He loves man.  This preference for more mutable life forms is charmingly depicted in Rats, Lice, and History:  The Biography of a Bacillus, by Hans Zinsser (1934), the original author of the microbiology textbook still used in medical schools today.  In it, Zinsser claims lice and other microbes win more wars than armies.  In any case, it offers even more proof that man has not evolved to the point where he understands how stupid he is to fight Mother Nature.

Speaking of Mother Nature, I recently finished reading The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell, with Bill Moyers.  This book was derived from a PBS documentary aired in 1988.  Campbell was a professor of comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence College, well versed in the various beliefs around the world. He made a clear distinction between the monotheistic God as above-it-all creator; and the mother-goddess traditions in which the goddess is “within as well as without.”  He claimed these earth-centered traditions placed animals equal to man and sometimes superior. As mothers generally have unconditional love for all their children, the mother-goddess traditions evolved as naturally compassionate and what we might now call “eco-friendly.”

In the “deistic” or “animistic” belief systems of the Native American mythology, for instance, the natural and supernatural worlds are intimately interconnected.  While some of the ritualistic religious ceremonies may seem brutal now, they respected man’s role as a part of and totally dependent on nature’s bounty.   The primary food animal of a tribe was revered, respected, and often deified.  Feasting ceremonies prayed to the spirit of the animal, asking it to be re-born to provide food again.

Another of my books describes the Hopi Snake Society rain dances.  In these, dancers hold rattlesnakes in their mouths, as part of the ceremony appealing for rain.  The snakes are then released, in order to appeal to the rain gods on humankind’s behalf.  The book claims cloudbursts often follow.  (National Geographic Society’s Indians of the Americas, 1955).

A few years ago, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, responding to drought conditions, prayed for rain.  His prayers were followed by torrents in the mountains which caused flooding and a couple of fatalities.

I figured he prayed to the wrong God.  He should have prayed to Mother Nature, who loves all her creatures, even people, and knows that the right amount of rain at the right time and place benefits all equally.

So, for those interested in “climate change,” perhaps we need to redefine the problem and re-work the strategy, and turn thoughts toward changing the climate in more desirable ways.  Even Seth of the Jane Roberts series asserts that man’s thoughts influence weather.

While I haven’t resorted to dancing with rattlesnakes, I have made appeals to Mother Nature for a milder summer, here in the swamps of Savannah.  I have asked the plants and animals to join me in this weather-making experiment.  My chickens seem particularly good at it.  I’ve even reminded Ma Nature that it will help mosquitoes.  This latest twist on “climate change” is a conversation starter and actually elicits a few smiles.  That we could perhaps influence the weather in universally beneficial ways may be the stuff of science fiction today, but the concept is as inspiring as a rainbow, should you choose to believe.  And, no government help required.

Down home, this summer, we have had more rain than in recent years, along with more cloud cover and more breeze.  Even the little blood-suckers have held off, for reasons only known to Ma Nature, but I thank her nonetheless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Little Birdie Told Me

birdscreen050917

I rescued a bird today, a little fella that crashed into the picture window behind the bird feeders.  I saw it happen and ran outside to find him lying on his side on the deck.  He was still alive, panting.  He was identical to the bird that did the same thing yesterday, only yesterday’s bird didn’t survive the crash.  I found him later in the day, dead on the deck.

Today, though, I gathered the little bird in my hands, where he stood, apparently in shock.  He didn’t seem badly hurt.  Eyes were bright, but the left kept closing.  I checked my quickie, laminated bird identifier, then The Sibley Guide to Birds, but couldn’t identify him.  He was about five inches long, with plain greenish-brown body and a yellowish breast with brown spots.  Beak was long, like a warbler.

He sat in my hands for about 15 minutes, slowly becoming more alert, then took off and flew away.

This has happened before.  I’ve rescued other birds.  Most eventually revived, just as this one did.  Others have not been so lucky.  Today, though, I decided this hazard is too dangerous.  The window is so reflective and the feeders so popular that the juxtaposition presents a cruel trap.

So I created a bird safety net.  It consists of two panels of screen material that I made awhile back to hang from doors in warm weather, to keep insects out.  Two of three panels covering a sliding glass door got converted to a screen over the plate glass.  Hopefully it will reduce reflectivity and cushion any birds that fly into it.  It may even dilute the hot summer sun that turns the living room into an oven.

I spend most of the morning on this project, grateful for the tool room that provided the screwdriver, hooks and string necessary for this innovative bird-protective technology.

The experience made me think, once again, about how unpredictable life is.  Who could have anticipated I would have spent the morning making a safety net for birds?

squirebirdscreen050917

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blooming Savannah

rosecherga0316

Georgia’s state flower, the Cherokee rose, apparently native to China.  It has thorns that could double as fishing hooks, in a pinch.

wisteria031017

Wisteria, one of my favorites.  A wild vine that blooms only a few minutes in the spring, but perfumes the whole area.  Its intertwining branches can be trained to  create beautiful bases.  Because it’s deciduous, I’m experimenting with training  the branches to cover high windows, to block sun in summer and allow light in winter.

wisteriatrunk051616

Camellia.

camellia030717

Savannah is known for its azaleas, which come in colors from white to purple, to various shades of pink.

azaleas030717

 

Before the Roosters Crow

porchmorning091416

From my porch, 091416

I got up before daylight this morning and took coffee to the porch.  There was a light drizzle, and gusty breezes sang through the trees.  I snuggled in winter bathrobe–thankful that mid-nineties summer heat has finally eased off–and let mind wander, guided by the rhythms of live oak branches and leaves dancing in the wind.

squireperch091416

Squire on his perch, 091416

Otherwise, all was quiet, no machine noise, and only sporadic crows of the roosters.  They seek reassurance, back and forth.  I answer with my translations.  To Squire’s five-note crow, I respond, “I love you so much!”  To Speckles two notes I sing “You, too!  Go back to sleep.”  And they do.

Silence again, but for the rustling crackle of oak leaves in the waves of wind.  For 20 minutes, I watch the sky lightening, as shades of gray transition into tones of green and blue.   Rain slackens.  Then the primal screams begin again.  This time, Speckles wakens the crows in the trees, who cackle an annoyed reply.  Squire answers once, then all is quiet again, but for the breeze and the drip, drip, drip of rain petering out.

specsbrownie091416

Speckles and Brownie, 091416

I think about how this weather is my favorite, cool but not cold, and breezy, lifting thoughts and carrying them wherever the wind blows.  Absent human noise, even the birds still sleeping.

The roosters set my daily clock.  Their morning greetings are like love songs to the rising sun.  I sing back in human words, believing that my intent to greet the day joyfully, in harmony with nature herself, carries far and wide, inspiring the dreams of those still sleeping.

Suddenly a gust of wind blows the rug across the porch and over my potted herbs.  A moment of panic startles me out of reverie.  Memories of hurricane Hermine, only a week and a half ago, merge with memories of the garden spider that succumbed to the storm’s high-velocity blasts.  As the storm moved in, I saw the spider struggling at the web’s anchor on the asparagus fern, looking panicked.  A  large twig attached to Spanish moss had blown into her web, ripping it apart.  My heart went out to her, but what could I do?  I had the chance to say good bye, because I knew she had little chance to survive the blasts of wind, this late in the season.  The next day, I could find no evidence or trace of her body.  Only the moss-covered twig, swinging on the strong web anchor from above, proved she ever lived.

spider072016

Hermine the Spider’s first web, 072016

I have watched that spider all summer.  She moved her web three times, after I kept bumping into it on the porch.  Finally, the web stretched from the fern on the porch to a low-hanging branch of the live oak tree, out of my way and over my head.  The huge spider was easy to see, with body at least two inches long and legs another three inches.

bananasdown091416The storm also broke the top half of a banana tree that had a rack of green bananas.  I had dearly hoped these bananas would have a chance to ripen before the first frost.  My garden this year was a miserable failure, but the bananas showed some promise, for the first time in over ten years of trying.

Storm Hermine threw branches and moss all over the yard and knocked out power and water for 48 hours, but the spider’s struggles and disappearance remain my most poignant memory of the storm’s passage.

This morning, as the dawn broke, I noted the moss and twig swaying in the breeze, and thought about how everything runs its course.  That oak tree may be over 100 years old, but garden spiders live only a season.  My three chickens are five years old and have a projected life span of not much longer.  They keep me focused in the moment, with more vitality packed into five pounds of feathers and mouth than any creatures I’ve ever known.

At 7 a.m., the roosters start crowing in earnest, and my quiet time ends with the primal rooster message:

“I love you so much!”

“You, too!”

 

twigmoss091416

Memories of Hermine, 091416

September 14, 2016