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Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 1933)

I was definitely beginning to think there was a difficult problem here.

Until The Overstory cropped up, that is. I needed something to fill the gap left by Unsheltered. I scanned my crowded shelves. After a frustrating few minutes, I spotted something.

I had bought Richard Powers’ book in June this year, and made a definite attempt to read it after I came back from the cruise with a strong sense that I needed to build on my connection with nature. It didn’t click at that point and I gave up the attempt after only a few pages. It was far easier to immerse myself in Braggini’s How the World Thinks and McGregor’s Living with the Gods along with Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment.

However, after reading Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, I was strongly drawn to The Overstory. I went back to it again.

Patricia’s Story

I still struggled a bit with the rather disjointed opening sections. It seemed to be failing to meet the criteria I mentioned at the start of the previous post. I explained there that for me a novel should ideally combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative. The story skipped from character to character too swiftly for me to easily engage, at first, disrupting any sense of both narrative and consciousness.

But at page 119 I was hooked. It was Patricia’s story that did it. Whereas before I was just getting glimpses of interest in each short section of narrative, here I found a sustained and deepening exploration. Through the eyes of this character Powers made the existence of trees not only come alive: he made it magical. For example, she and her father had been running an experiment with a newly planted tree and its soil, which they had carefully weighed at the start. A few years later, and two years after his unexpected death, she remembers the experiment they started. She regrets the delay but immediately begins to check out the results. She wants to find out how much soil a tree consumes in growing:

. . . the soil weighs just what it did, minus an ounce or two. There is no other explanation: almost all the tree’s mass has come from the very air. Her father knew this. Now she does, too.

The book drew me deeper and deeper into the life of trees. Something important was going on here. I was resonating unexpectedly strongly.

There was the issue of interconnectedness, which helped (page 142):

Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavours of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree.

And the experience of writing (page 221):

The slow push of graphite across paper reminds [Patricia] of the steady evaporation that lifts hundreds of gallons of water up hundreds of feet into a giant Douglas-fir trunk everyday. The solitary act of sitting over the page and waiting for her hand to move may be as close as she’ll ever get to the enlightenment of plants.

And much more of course, with many other characters, now more fully developed. But I sensed that at some level there was even more than that.

Passages like the ones quoted above moved me to tears. What was going on, I wondered.

Reconnecting

It felt as though I was reconnecting with something whose importance I had kept discounting. My poems have always been wiser than me, and the ones I’ve written about trees should have been enough to bring the full depth of my feelings into awareness, but somehow they never did.

My Entishness has always been a hint, as was my Hearth dream. But it was the intensity of my feelings in response to the book that took me by surprise. As other posts have explored on this blog, I’ve never managed to link my pool of pain to anything specific. Some of it clearly relates to the atmosphere of grief in my childhood home, but that never seemed an explanation for the whole of it.

I found myself wondering whether this could account for the residue. Just as when I went into hospital as a child that second time and leapt to the conclusion that I had only myself to rely on, which had the effect of distancing me from my parents, especially my mother, was it possible that the grief I felt at the cutting down of the companionable tree of my childhood caused me to pull back from nature in the same way, and with equally enduring and destructive patterns of feeling and behaviour that I have not revoked as yet.

On top of that there were further parallels. I was not simply grieving for the tree: I was identifying with it. I knew what it was like to be alone and held down by power against my will, to be anaesthetised and then cut in my case: to be simply held and cut in the case of the tree. I’d learnt that to connect with any other living being risks harm or the pain of loss or both. Connecting so closely is not safe. And yet I knew we cannot live without connections.

It took me decades to rebuild a trust in and connection with people, which even now can be easily damaged in terms of any particular relationship. I have never worked anywhere near as hard to do the same with trees and nature, except for a brief period in Hendon when I took pains to at least identify most of the neighbouring trees by name. Otherwise it has been token gestures such as high-speed walks up hills or in woodlands, more in the interests of fitness than the exploration of nature at close hand and with affection.

It might not therefore be that my idea of hearticulture’s calling is incorrect, but rather that it is seriously incomplete if I do not bring nature deeply into the mix. My emphasis has been on being of use to people rather than trees, intense involvement with which I have probably dismissed as a rather flaky tendency captured by the dismissive phrase ‘tree hugger.’

I was still not sure how this would play out. It was not clear how I could balance my need to respond to people with my need to connect with trees.

The Overstory made it clear that trees stand in need of my protection, and that by protecting them I would be protecting humanity as well from the consequences of an aspect of our folly. It felt as though I might be on the right track.

Then came the final insight triggered when I read on page 321:

‘Is the house on fire?’

A shrug [from Adam]. A sideways pull of the lips. ‘Yes.’

‘And you want to observe the handful of people who’re screaming, Put it out, when everyone else is happy watching things burn.’

Adam is the psychologist visiting the protesters to research, as he puts it later, ‘What keeps people from seeing the obvious?[1]’ He then mentions the bystander effect and I burst into floods of tears.

I spoke to the tree that was cut down in my childhood.

‘I was not there when they cut you down, my friend. I let you down. I knew the pain of being cut and did nothing. I’m so sorry.’

I clutched the book tight as I cried.

The depth and complexity of my largely discounted sense of connectedness with trees was beginning to reveal itself.

I felt I had just reconnected with something of immense importance, far greater than I had so far realised. I’m still not sure how far it extends exactly. It will take time for me to understand this properly. I just knew at that moment how intensely I love, and always have loved trees.

The loss of the tree, my Entishly slow ways of processing experience and reacting to it genuinely (I can fake normal, react faster and betray myself all too easily), my love of clothes with an earth colour, my dream that powerfully linked my heart with the earth, and the way my name echoes peat for me, have always been strong hints.

I never realised until now though just how powerfully certain feelings were running under the surface, generating irresistible currents that carried me away from the fertile ground of this insight. I never recognised they were almost certainly part of the river of pain within, flooding into the cellar of my mind from interrelated experiences of grief – my parents torn apart by my twelve-year old sister’s agonising death, my pre-school self feeling abandoned in hospital a second time, my defenceless tree cut down in minutes by my own family.

I now need to learn how to integrate this insight into my hearticulture calling. I need to learn how to express my love of trees. Ideally I’d like to save a rainforest, but I guess I’ll have to find something closer to home to act on.

Hopefully in the future I’ll at least be able to deal more calmly under pressure of time with a frustrating queue. An Ent would be more patient after all.

Coda

I’ve finished The Overstory now. It was a sandwich. The best flavour was in the middle, but it was well worth reading, even if towards the end it had lost most of its power to move me. It has shifted my consciousness, lifted it –  decisively I think. What more can I fairly expect of a book?

What next?

I was thinking I might buy Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, until I suddenly remembered that I’d already got a book of almost the same title, The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge. I started to read that one but got derailed by Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.

More of that soon.

Footnote

[1]. The answer he gives is ‘Mostly other people.’ While this wasn’t a key insight for me right then, it resonates with the Bahá’í emphasis on the imperative need for all of us to independently investigate the truth.

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Question: What do you say regarding the theory of the evolution of beings to which certain European philosophers subscribe?

Answer. . . . Briefly, this question comes down to the originality or non-originality of the species, that is, whether the essence of the human species was fixed from the very origin or whether it subsequently came from the animals.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Some Answered Questions – 2014 edition – page 220,  quoted from the earlier edition in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief edited by Keven Brown – page 45)

A friend recommended I read Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver.

‘If you only read one book in the next 12 months, let it be this one,’ he insisted.

To be honest, of late I’ve not taken much pleasure in novels. I’m a bit stuck in the past. Apart from Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much,in recent days I’ve usually drawn a blank with anything later than Virginia Woolf.

Not so this time though.

I recently battled to define the balance successful novels need to strike if they are to hold the reader’s attention. For me, they should ideally combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in the memory. If authors stray too far from some form of narrative it is possible they might diminish the long-term impact of their books on the reader. From the reviews I skimmed Unsheltered looked like it would manage to avoid that trap.

I checked that my local Waterstones had a copy and dashed down there to get it. I hadn’t much time before I was due to meet my wife in town. I scanned all the shelves and was frustrated not to be able to find it anywhere.

There was an irritating queue at the counter. I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes to go. I slotted in at the back of the queue.

‘Thank you for your help,’ the woman at the front enthused, as she struggled with her bags, purse and cards.

‘I’m really looking forward to reading this,’ she droned on as she was forcing the book into a spare corner of her M&S bag, dropping her points card on the floor as she did so.

With relief I saw her pick up her card, stuff it back into her wallet and stagger out of the shop with her bags.

The person in front handed over his paperback and was gone in seconds, thank God.

‘Can I help?’ the familiar face behind the till enquired, her hand poised over the keyboard as I approached with my notebook in hand. She knew me well enough to realise she might have an online search on her hands.

‘I hope so,’ I smiled. ‘I’m looking for Kingsolver’s Unsheltered,’ I explained. ‘It says on your website you’ve got it here but I couldn’t find it anywhere. It’s not on the new stack or the main novels section.’

I took a quick look behind me to see if anyone was waiting. Thankfully no one was. I’d’ve been as irritating as the bag lady if there had been, blethering as I was.

‘I’ll just check for you. I won’t be a moment.’

She headed straight for the new stack I’d just searched carefully through.

She found it within seconds.

‘So it wasn’t stored in alphabetical order,’ I said, feeling slightly embarrassed as it had obviously been in plain sight.

‘No, we stack them in order of priority. We put the best ones near the top.’

‘Ah! I’ll try and remember that next time.’

‘Do you want to buy it?’

Usually I would scan a £20 book before risking a purchase, but there was no time for that.

‘I do,’ I said at the same time as wondering whether this might be a big mistake.

‘Do you need a bag?’

‘No, I’ve got one here.’

I had my points card and my cash in hand, paid for the book, picked it up, shoving my receipt hastily inside, fumbled it into the Waterstones bag I always carried with me and hurried to the exit. Time was running out, and so should I.

. . . .

I couldn’t wait to get home. I didn’t contradict my wife when she supposed I had work to do. There was work, it was true, but I wanted to squeeze in an extra few moments to taste the opening pages.

At first I thought I might have made a mistake. The opening didn’t grip me as I’d hoped. Dialogues about the state of a building aren’t my cup of tea. I had to get on with my work at this point and found it hard to stop beating myself up for wasting my money again by buying in haste a book I didn’t like.

As soon as I could, I beat a retreat to an armchair with a coffee and the book. I needed to find out if I’d thrown my money away.

Within 13 pages I was hooked. A death is almost bound to get my attention. I could barely put it down. Every spare moment after that I stepped back into the double worlds of this enthralling novel. The stepping between the past and present reminded me of A S Byatt’s Possession, though the themes are different. Kingsolver is more concerned with how the two periods in history echo each other: bigotry, inequality, denialism and so on.

In terms of the nineteenth century story line, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the passionate resistance to it are a main thread. In terms of the twentieth century it’s our similar and far more potentially threatening commitment to unsustainable economic growth.

Either way it matches my current preoccupations since the cruise by emphasising from early on our connection with nature. Mary Treat tries to convey to Thatcher Greenwood what sustains her relationship with plants (page 83):

‘I become attached, you see. After so many months with these plants, observing them intimately, I begin to feel as if we are of the same world.’

‘But you are of the same world, of course.’

Within four days of buying it I had finished it. I was scribbling in my diary quotes from the closing chapters, so I wouldn’t forget them.

The moment, for example, when Thatcher, the main character from the nineteenth century, an invention of the author, refrains from telling Mary Treat, a real-life courageous female pioneering scientist of the time and respected correspondent of Darwin’s, that ‘he could see her soul. It was a giant redwood.’

This had not been the first such quote. Willa, the main contemporary character, ‘looked at the oak over their heads. Its trunk was a monument to resilience and its branches to tenderness.’ That resonates with the part of me that wrote the poem Oak in Winter.

Also in September I published on this blog a sequence about becoming an Ent. I wrote:

I came to feel a powerful affinity with trees. It was as though at some deep level I feel as though I am a tree, an image of myself I need to hold onto. It represents patiently and resiliently operating in a long time scale, rooted in the earth but reaching after the sun – in effect constituting a kind of bridge between earth and heaven, something we all have the potential to be.

What makes the book so marvellous for me is that it brings together both that aspect of my inner life and my reactions to the society we live in. For example, towards the end of the book, Tig, Willa’s daughter declares vehemently, ‘The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell.’

Now that I have finished the book, and am experiencing that strangely bereft feeling that comes when you can’t step back into the fascinating world of a superb fiction, I find myself taking stock.

I thought I had made it clear to myself that from now hearticulture is my calling. I thought that would make it easy to decide what I needed to do and what would be a waste of time.

‘Was reading novels like this a waste of time?’ I found myself thinking. ‘You told yourself you’d focus on poetry.’

‘Well, yes,’ I replied to myself. ‘But compared to this most of the poetry I’ve got on my shelves is boring. I only really like about half a dozen poets and the rest I rarely look at.’

‘And anyway,’ another part of my head chipped in, ‘Wading through too much poetry wouldn’t be much better than drowning yourself in novels.’

The words of Unsheltered came back to me again, ones I’d resonated to almost in tears as I read them the first time: ‘Mary had lived with her discipline. Both of them had, she and Thatcher, with an integrity that led them to give up, practically speaking, their lives. . . Willa ached for a devotion like that, something to move her beyond herself.’

I began to wonder whether all this might be a sign that I wasn’t completely on board with my hearticulture plan in the context of my Bahá’í convictions, as I’d fooled myself into believing I had. Was I now calling my calling into question? Perhaps I still haven’t found out what, given my current levels of energy, I should be focusing my time on for the rest of my life, over and above the obvious commitments I have.

Where was all this taking me?

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