June 18 – 24, 2021Vol. 23, No. 2

The Overstory

by Martha F. Barkley

Richard Powers's novel about trees won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. What could be better for a Belgrade Community Read than a gripping story of scientists, some fictitious and others for real, working to preserve ancient forests and their necessary health to our daily lives? Doesn't everyone feel better after a walk in the woods?

When I first saw this 502-page tome, I thought what a crazy story this has to be to hold my attention. At our monthly Zoom group, I mentioned that I may skip some chapters. The chapter about the computer game designer was one that did not seem to be my preference, but I was encouraged by friends at the monthly book discussion to read on and do not skip.

Good advice. By the time I reached the last chapter on Seeds, I was hooked for sure by Richard Powers's power with words. I slowed down and read and reread pages because I did not want this in-depth tale about trees to end. It was like sitting by the lake surrounded by hemlocks and birches. The daily diet of trees is necessary in my life. I was consumed by the author's tale of scientists dedicated to preserve the few ancient growths left.

Just the fact that the word tree comes from the same root word as truth was profound for me to read. Birch trees surround us in Belgrade. Richard Powers shares early on in this convoluted tale that the name "birch" has its root in book. Makes sense to me.

Chapters about jail time were ones I was tempted to skip, but no, I read on and on: "Through the armored arch behind the checkpoint, a cell-subtended hallway disappears lengthwise down an optical illusion of forever." Now, that is a description of perspective if I ever read one…and I read on.

One tree expert was a failed actuarial scientist. Multiple exams failed when several attempts are allowed to achieve the profession. That really caught my interest because my dad was an actuary and few people can define the profession. This author did it for me: "It's the science of replacing an entire human life with its cash value". The actuary formulates pension plans based on mortality tables, the probability of future life. I am a retired teacher and enjoy a monthly pension after working in the classroom for thirty years.

Another scientist travels from "Las Vegas, capital of clueless sinners, toward Salt Lake, capital of cunning saints". How funny is that description of two U.S. cities? Back roads taken and demonstrations to prevent tree removal are related.

Crimes committed and jail time with many secrets kept to protect others. Family treasures, wood art work, and a flip book of tree photos covering decades of sprawling growth buried and retrieved years later. Childhood memories of climbing our backyard mimosa tree with my younger brother returned when I read, "Adam climbs up into his maple as high as he can and doesn't come down until dinner.…It gives him bitter comfort to gaze over the neighborhood's roofs and know how much better life is above ground level." Remember that experience when you were young?

Many high-up scientific experiences and tree houses for people saving ancient trees from destruction. A couple remain on high for over a year…yes, they did.

How many of you have rolled over a dead log and seen the crawling life underneath? Life from death is a constant in the forest. Ever wonder why some trees grow in a row? An ancient tree fell and all along its trunk, life is seeded and reproduced in that straight trunk line.

Crazy tree stories are woven together in this science of preserving old-growth forests. Our Pine Tree State of Maine is grouped in with the pines of the Northeast. Remember the logging on our rivers not too long ago? Now loaded trucks noisily drive our highways.

Logjams on rivers in the Northwest reached six miles during the worst of the clear cuttings in Oregon. The enormous raptor-like machinery to cause such mass tree removal is frightening in Powers's words.

I remember the clear cuts at our I-95 interchanges near Augusta and Belgrade. Why? All that cool shade lost and a desert of sorts where greenery used to be.

"A tree, a Callery pear tree that survived half burned and with roots snapped, has just returned in good health to Ground Zero." Ten years after the inferno burned since 9/11 and a tree survived and lives today. Maybe our interstate deserts will also sprout new life?

Lots to learn about our Belgrade area's appeal with trees galore here. We have such a gift of evergreen life year round and stunning new foliage every spring. Breathe in that baked pine needle smell as you walk in our precious woods and look up at them as they tower overhead. Flagrant fall foliage is unbelievable reflected in our Great Pond blue waters.

Count the rings of the old tree that needed to be removed. So many years beyond our brief time we spend together. Even the wood tables in cold jail cells offer a hope of outside beauty in the ancient forests.

Editor's Note: Richard Powers will join readers via Zoom to discuss The Overstory on August 26, at 6:30 p.m. Sponsored by the Belgrade Library, the Belgrade Historical Society and the 7 Lakes Alliance, this online discussion is the culmination of the library's summer-long Community Read. To register for this event, please call the library at 495-3508 or write to library@townofbelgrade.com.