Jim Mayer wrote recently to suggest that I read “The Overstory,” a novel by Richard Powers in which the lives of characters unfold over many years against the backdrop of local trees. It’s a way to underline the short lives we lead compared to big trees that can endure for ages.
“The Overstory” is on my nightstand right now, along with “Bewilderment,” Powers’ new novel about how the study of the cosmos shapes the personal life of a widowed scientist. These are books I didn’t get to over the summer, but as fall arrives, there’s always hope.
I suppose that Jim recommended “The Overstory” to me because I write a good bit about trees. My family lives on a modest lot that’s surrounded by oaks and sycamores, elms, hackberries, a few pines and some tallows we tolerate, although they’re invasive.
Living beneath a canopy of green can be a pleasantly sheltering thing, giving me the sense that our trees are taking care of us. Every now and then, though, I’m reminded of my obligation to take care of them.
Hurricane season in Louisiana underscores how vulnerable trees can be — and the costly damage they can do when they fall. A summer storm took down the big elm tree near our patio last year, and although no one was hurt and our house was spared, it was a mess to clean up.
Earlier this year, our tree man and his crew returned to prune our water oak and cut down a couple of young oaks growing too close to the house. Such careful, skilled and exhausting work doesn’t come cheap, and a homeowner is bound to wonder at such times if the expense of living with so many trees is really worth it.
I have a gut check about this at least once a year, and for the time being, I remain convinced that our trees give us more than they take. For one thing, as Powers seems to hint in his novel, they remind us, in a humbling way, how different tree time is from human time.
I thought about this after we pruned our big water oak, which shaded the childhoods of our daughter and son. They’re both grown now and living elsewhere, and as I scanned the oak’s newly trimmed branches, I was moved to wonder, as every parent does, where all those years had gone. In the life of an oak, though, a human childhood is but an instant.
Ecologist Doug Tallamy details more practical benefits of oaks: “Through the insect populations they support, oaks are a major source of food for dozens of bird species, and most birds need to consume hundreds of insects every day.”
That’s reason enough for me to keep our trees around, though I hesitate to call them ours. As I’m often reminded when I sit beneath them, they belong to something well beyond me.