My Books

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The Strong Silent Type

Muir Woods


I’ve never found it easy to keep my mouth shut.

However, in the past decade or so, as public social platforms have become a virtual mosh pit for wide-eyed optimists and gun-toting vigilantes alike, my urge to, ahem, air my views has been tempered by the sheer god-awfulness of what passes for reality these days. I mean, really? Aristophanes himself would have been aghast by the “cloud cuckoo land” which passes for normal in the current millennium.

So lately I’ve been trying to distance myself from the fray. But it’s not as easy at it once was to get away from it all. And maybe now isn’t the time. Now more than ever it’s time to look after this planet, and perhaps move to higher ground.

Sorry, fiction fans, I don’t believe the answer lies in outer space. At least not any time soon. If we can’t keep from wrecking this amazing planet we’ve got no business heading out to trash another one.

Okay. That’s the rant. Moving on.

About a year ago a weighty novel came out to much fanfare. Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” was compared to Melville’s masterpiece “Moby Dick” in terms of its cultural significance and literary merit. When I learned that the author wove multiple story lines all sharing a common theme of trees, I was intrigued and determined to read it. I mean, I love trees. I love reading. I’m a fan of fiction. What could go wrong?

Well. It’s an amazing book. I’m glad I read it. But I wouldn’t read it again. It’s too painful. Too real. And it’s not at all like “Moby Dick” unless you’re measuring by length. “The Overstory” is not as funny or lyrical, or just plain wondrous. But what makes it like Melville’s staggering work of genius is the compelling brilliance of the story, which weaves history, science and the heartbreaking paradox of humanity into a sobering cautionary tale for our times.

The mind-blowing science at the heart of the plot centers on the relatively recent studies documenting how trees communicate with each other. Modern skeptics may scoff, but the evidence is overwhelming. Trees have their own “heartbeats.” They can live hundreds, even thousands of years.

Short-lived humans, who value speed above thoughtfulness, have long taken trees for granted, slaying them by the millions every year. We humans are so easily distracted by noisemakers. Yet we once admired the strong silent type. John Wayne, not known for his environmental stand, earned the respect of generations by following his own rule, “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.”

As another Earth Day approaches politicians will make new promises. I wish I could believe them. But it’s been almost 50 years since the first Earth Day. The ocean is rising faster every year, while the forests are silently vanishing.

It’s a pity we can’t hear the trees. But if you read “The Overstory,” you may be convinced. The planet is fighting back.

Happy Earth Day, indeed.

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