A character driven mystical novel about how trees really communicate with one another and the infinite complexity of nature
This book has come the closest to describing a mystical experience I myself had– which I think is nearly impossible to do since I think mystical experiences are ineffable.
But here’s the passage, which I think is simply beautiful. I don’t even think it needs any context.
A man in the boreal north lies on his back on the ground at down. his head extends from his one-man tent, facing upward. Five thin cylinders of white spruce register the breeze above him. Gravity is nothing. The evergreen tips stretch and scribble on the morning sky. He’s ever really thought about the many miles a tree travels, in smallest cursive increments, each hour of every day. Forever in motion, these stationary things.
The man with his head sticking out of the tent asks himself: What are those treetops like? They’re like the cog-toothed drawing toy, spinning out surprise patterns from the simplest nested cycles. They’re like the tip of a Ouija planchette, taking dictation from beyond. They are, in fact, like nothing but themselves. They are the crowns of five white spruces laden with cones, bending in the wind as they do every day of their existence. Likeness is the sole problem of men.
But the spruces pour out messages in media of their own invention. They speak through their needles, trucks, and roots. They cord in their own bodies the history of every crisis they’ve lived through. The man in the tent lies bathed in signals hundred of millions of years older than his crude senses. And still he can read them.
The five white spruces sign the blue air. They write: Light and Water and a little crushed stone demand long answers. Nearby lodge poles and jack pines demur: Long answers need long time. And long time is exactly what’s vanishing.
The black spruces down the drumlin put it bluntly: Warm is feeding on warm. The permafrost is belching. The cycle speeds up.
Farther south, broad leaves agree. Noisy aspens remnant birches, forests of cottonwood and poplars, take up the chorus: The world is turning a new thing.
The man rolls over onto his back, face-to-face with the morning sky. The messages swarm him. Even here, homeless, he thinks: Nothing will be the same.
The spruces answer: Nothing has even been the same.
We’re all doomed, the man thinks.
We have always all been doomed.
But things are different this time.
Yes, You’re here.
The man must rise and get to work, as the trees are already doing. His work is almost done. He’ll strike camp tomorrow, or the day after. But this minute, this morning, he watches the spruces writing and thinks, I wouldn’t need to be so very different for sun to seem to be about sun, for green to be about green, for joy and boredom and anguish and terror and death to all be themselves, beyond the need for any killing clarity, and then this- this, the growing right of light and water and stone– would take up all of me, and be all the words I need.The Overstory, A Novel, Richard Powers
So it’s a character driven mystical book, based partly on the real life and research of Suzanne Simard— don’t get too attached to anything. Richard Powers kills more darlings than George RR Martin. But this book has a narrative and a character that has helped me reconcile my own link between a digital and physical love of nature. I’ve pondered before on how I could be so attracted to the digital when I also have a deep love and enjoy spending time in real, unfiltered nature / creation and how my role models include nature loving mystics like St. Francis of Assisi, Rumi, Buddha, and Christ.
20 minute TED talk but the stories about grizzly bear escapes and the revelations about how forest trees communicate make it worth it for sure.
The latest issue of WIRED magazine also ran a small feature on The Overstory, mentioning Suzanne Simard’s work.
First, let’s establish that a large part of The Overstory is about nature communicating with itself and how it has done so for thousands of years– with or without humanity being present. There is science to back this up– trees do communicate with one another through their root systems and even airborne chemicals (mycorrhizal networks). Trees also give off phytoncides, which help boost human immune function, part of the “forest bathing” treatment you may have heard about lately. So for some characters in the novel, there is a case that can be made these trees could be considered some form of sentient creatures and harvesting them (cutting them down) is a form of intentional harm– or at least desecration. There is a passage in the novel about how a rotting log should be left to sit and not cleared away because of all of the insects it feeds, molds and fungus it grows– that the rotting log is actually an infinitely complex collection of evolving and resonant life.
For me, the most fascinating character I couldn’t wait to get back to is a character named Neelay Mehta. Neelay starts to learn electronics and programing at a young age as a way to bond with his engineer father who gives him a computer kit for his 8th birthday (it’s really a gift for both of them). They both marvel at the potential of what electronics will bring to the world. At first Neelay scoffs at the size of the computer kit’s tiny 3″ 8-bit processor. But his father insists that it’ll do “whatever we want, we just have to get our plans in there.” The boy asks how to get plans into that. The father pauses and responds, “Someday it may hold all the plans we have.” Neelay, still skeptical due to the size of the 8-bit processor, fires back “This little thing?” The father then grabs a picture from India of a fig tree that grew so big that it collapsed a temple roof and overtook the entire building, “You see? If Vishnu can put one of these giant figs into a seed this big…” The man leans down to pinch the tip of his son’s pinkie. “Just think what we might fit into our machine.”
Neelay takes immediately to the machine and programming. Writing the first program all coder’s write as a rite-of-passage, “Hello World!,” and then looping it fifty times. He sees the potential of computers and coding. I must say, Richard Ford as an author does not shy away from the technical aspects of coding and programming. He goes into detail and what’s more, he gets it right. Neelay attacks programing and decides to create a visual program for his father as a gift. The pixel artwork obsesses him day-and-night. He creates a notebook full of programming ideas, flow-charts, and pixel sketches. He knows it will take days, weeks– but the idea of showing a moving pixel kite to his father is too strong for him to focus on anything else. Neelay ends up suffering a physical tragedy that changes his life but allows him to still function as a student and a child. It ends up giving him more time to program and code, which he enjoys. Into his teenage years (this seems to mirror what happens in the computer industry in the 80s and 90s) Neelay starts coding text-based adventure games. He creates his own complete adventure game– much like a choose-your-own-adventure book– and sells it by advertising for it on the back pages of a computer magazine. Neelay receives so many orders he can’t keep track. It’s a run-away success. He calls the game Mastery and it’s a runaway success that spawns many updates and sequels (much like games that have their heyday in the 90s and 2000s like Everquest and World of Warcraft). He creates Mastery 2. Introducing a graphic based approach to the adventure game. Only now, he has some many roles he can’t keep up. He hires a team to assist him with his company’s development (staying with the tree theme his company’s name is Sempervirens [a redwood’s latin name] a name which comes to him mystically while getting stuck in a redwood forest). His team helps him develop his company and his game which becomes his obsession. Mastery now is not just an adventure but a sandbox where players become anyone they want, build empires, explore the world, and defeat mythical monsters for fame and glory. Neeley pours his soul into each game, demanding each be more detailed and alluring. Each game sells well and is a phenomenal success. Critics and fans can’t wait for more. When his company debuts Mastery 6 Neelay decides to disguise himself and talk with other players in game to try to elicit honest feedback for what he’s built (like the king who dresses as a beggar trope). He comes across a player who easily sniffs Neelay out for who he is: a CEO with a shallow product. The player berates Neeley for his typical approach to these games, saying he once thought they were special but now he’s sure they’re not and that whatever meaning was there in the first place is gone. That he once thought the next one would bring the big change but now he’s sure that they’ll all be bland and predictable. Humans being humans– what’s interesting about that?
While hurt, Neeley agrees with him– he has been struggling with what to do next and obsessed with what the next step forward would be. He starts to look into Patricia Westford’s (the book character based on the real Suzanna Simard) work on trees and how they talk, communicate, and help one another. Neeley starts to look past people and see nature and looks underground and sees the complex infinite network that it could represent and how computer modeling could actually be a good use for simulating nature and natural processes that people are hell-bent on taking away for the sake of “human development.”It doesn’t go into it but as a reader you get the sense that the next installment of Mastery will not heavily feature people but instead the ground beneath their feet and what what that network is instead of looking to the stars in space for the infinite– Neelay looks to the underground root systems and natural processes and sees a picture of infinity. And it’s here when I reflect I find my own reconciliation between the nature and the digital. I love nature– I love being outdoors and hiking up mountains and taking in all of the amazing creation around us. As Richard Rohr paraphrases often, “Creation is the first Bible.” I also really enjoy exploring and creating in these digital realms as well– even though they are synthetic, it’s the attempt, like Neeley’s to approach the complexity and beauty of what’s real and what’s truly out there. I don’t get anything out of a sandbox game that doesn’t offer at least some dimension of a reflection of nature, for me example of this approach include Fallout 4 (where the solution to everything is violence), and anything from the Grand Theft Auto series (while open-world it’s a very cynical take on modern city life and human nature left to an environment of scarcity). So I really believe that Neeley and many other game developers and visionaries out there, when they are at their best, are not just trying to sell copies of their game and make fast money, or attempting to achieve selfish notoriety through innovative game play dynamics (for example Sid Meier or Peter Molyneux). At their best, these teams come together with and idea and create a platform that leads to a preview of the infinite.
Below are some screenshots of games that I think take this approach– I enjoy them and continue to play them. And I truly believe they are still helping me with my healing and are not just video games but explorations of a type of nature.