Mary Beth Writes

My personal goal is to write this in one day. Sometimes my thoughts and ideas fly and dip like ‘always soaring never landing’ albatrosses – but do you know what happens to people who pursue albatrosses? They end up in the drink. Which is where more of my writing ends than you’d think.

Last week Kathleen (we’ve been friend 40 years so she can get away with a stunt like this) sent me a 500-page book that she had just finished, because, she said, she thought it might be my kind of book. The book I had been reading was not working for me so I started reading Kathleen’s book - Overstory by Richard Powers.

I read the whole thing (I went fast in some parts) in three days.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t especially like it. The book is too long, and his main characters are way too passionate. They come from intense families and dramatic circumstances. They were remarkable children and angsty teenagers who became radical adults. I have known a lot of people in my life, many of them ‘radical’ and I have seldom (maybe never) known people like the heroic, valiant characters that Powers brings to life. Several are definitely on the autism continuum and it bothered me that the complexities and frustration of autism are used as a prop to move a story ahead. Racism and sexism hugely affect some of the characters, to the point where one character almost commits suicide. That is not explored either. It just moves the story along.

The characters seem like people one might recognize in comic books or computer games; superheroes and avatars who are conniving, succumbing, and overcoming. Indeed, one of the characters invents computer games.

I didn’t find characters with whom I could or would identify. These people were way beyond my paygrade.

But what Overstory does accomplish is this. In a way I have rarely encountered in my whole reading life – it pulled me into re-examining being human now. I felt to my bones how dangerously and willfully innocent we pretend we are. The human race acts as if being human is the point of entire natural world; that we are the pinnacle of evolution and apex of creation.

The most compelling character in the novel is - the evolving science of trees. Trees are the protagonists. Forests are both background and foreground to everything. We learn what scientists have been learning over the past 50 years. That we share one quarter of our DNA with trees. That trees share detailed information below and above ground. Trees share measurable chemical warnings and invitations about insects, weather, pollution. Some trees such as aspens (this boggled my dear little mind) don’t grow by propagation so much as by migration. Aspen forests in Canada are connected by root system to aspens in Montana and California. Indeed, the idea of one single tree is the solipsistic vision of humans. Trees nearly always exist in communities. Every tree that dies – by age, accident, disease, or logging - changes the health and viability of the community around it.

There’s plenty more to know. Overstory is a slow, grinding invitation to long and to ache and to act on behalf of trees. The novel doesn’t make me want to learn more stuff. It makes me want to see, observe, notate, and experience the actual world I am in, instead of the world we keep inventing.

...

I seem to be writing a lot more about books in this quarantine year.  Hmmm. Well, I did do this is one day, so there's that. 

These are pictures of my grand cats.

Nancy Drew is the fluffy one the right. She’s a bit feral; she and an ill sibling were found alone and crying in a field six years ago and taken to the humane society from which my daughter adopted her. Nancy adores my daughter and is resentful of everyone else on earth.

The one on the left is Frank who spent his early kittenhood in loving foster care until our kid adopted him last year. Feisty, secure, happy Frank is messing with Nancy’s suspicious soul. She’s no longer 100% averse to being occasionally hugged by him. Especially when the apartment is chilly. 

 This is Frank living his best life. One can imagine how this scenarios unfolds when our daughter is on a zoom business meeting.

If you have photos of your cats and dogs or other beloved animals that you’d like to share in a kind of communal valentine, send them to me with a sentence or two about them. I love how much we humans, at our best, love our animals.

If you don't have my email address, write to me via the comments. Incude YOUR email address (I don't have easy access to it).  I will NOT publish that request to me. No one will see it but me and I will email my contact info back to you.       

Comments

Amazing info about trees. They share one quarter of our DNA? Impressive. I'm going to start talking to them.
Mary Beth's picture

I thought you already did...Hah.... The book is not sentimental and there is real research that indicates their sense of well being affects our sense of well being and vice versa. There is a real sensibility going on in the natural world that we can respect and be part of - or we can ignore and become extinct. It's so mind-opening to take in that this is not a greeting card sensibility. This is what we know and are learning more about.

Yes yes and yes about Overstory. You captured so well my experience with that book. And even though I was not crazy about it I believe I am the one who recommended to Kathleen. Talking about books is one of the most interesting parts of your blog for me. I have read at least one book because you mentioned it.
Mary Beth's picture

And you live close to SF. I think? The descriptions of the trees in some outdoor court on the Berkeley campus, I want to see that someday. Do you know what I am talking about? Thanks for the thumbs up on the book reports.. it really has been one of the most remarkable reading years in my life. If I can figure out why, I will write about that.

Ummmm — very interesting. Amazing information.

I knew you'd like best the part about the trees! I was fascinated by the idea that trees talk to each other. There should have been more about trees in winter. Are they dormant or are they busy in a way we can't perceive? And yes, Dorian sent me the book and I sent it on to you.

. . . pick up "The Hidden Life of Trees" by Peter Wohlleben - he is a German Forester, and author. I heard him being interviewed on NPR a few years ago, and was completely entranced by what he had to say, and what I learned about how they react and interact with the world. Makes you realize being human isn't that fancy.
Mary Beth's picture

A friend said the same thing - and stopped by here today with a copy of this book! Great minds recommend alike...

I need a much longer life to read all the books I have in my library now! Yes, I will be looking for this one...trees have always captivated me, starting as a child. Now my secret is out!

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Rosemary Radford Ruether & The Fierce Poetry of Hope

5/23/2022 Rosemary Radford Ruether

 “Rosemary Radford Ruether, a founding mother of feminist theology, has died at age 85” https://www.npr.org/2022/05/22/1100596818/rosemary-radford-ruether-feminist-theologian-dies-at-age-85

 ...

Rosemary Ruether taught at Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary while I was a student there in the late 1970’s. I only took one class from her but for me it was a doozy.

The Badlands

4/29/2022

The Lakota call this land "mako sica" which translates into "badlands." They and many other wanderers and settlers named it this because it is so hard to travel through.

Wade in the Waters

4/28/2022

This is a small announcement that could be a lot of fun for some of you.

For the past two years Len has been a volunteer Wisconsin stream monitor. Once per summer month Len and another guy (with whom he has become friends) check water quality and stream-bed life at a few local sites. Before they started, they received clear but uncomplicated training in order to understand what is being looked for and how the testing equipment works. And they received hip waders!

Who's in the Mirror? Representation Matters

4/19/2022

Who’s in the Mirror? Representation Matters

Old story, I’ve probably mentioned it before: In 1977 I was visiting a friend in Ohio for a weekend. We went to her United Methodist Church on Sunday which is in itself amazing since we were two single 20-something women who had been out drinking the night before.

In just spring

4/13/2022

We know what the “Signs of Spring” are, probably because we did so many "Signs of Spring" art projects in grammar school. We know what to notice. Green shoots. Birds singing. Kids playing outside with kites, jump ropes, and jacks.

Why do we celebrate Signs of Spring but not Signs of Winter? Hmmm? Maybe Winter ought to look into this and make a complaint?

Meantime, Karen K sent these photos. Look at these lovely pale-but-not-boring colors and hues.

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