How did you inhale the world of the forest?
(laughs) inhaling, that’s the right word for it. Do you know about this Japanese obsession called »forest bathing«. It started with research in Japan and now it’s become quite wide spread internationally. It is said that the volatile compounds from trees lower your blood pressure, stimulate your circulation, can counter depression and regulate diabetes... The best thing I did in the course of writing of this book was to move to the forest, and literally inhale the forest. Researching the book took about five to six years, and I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I read some 120 volumes about trees, not to mention articles. I learnt how little of original forest remains in North America, something like three percent. If you want to see what an Eastern broadleaf looks like, what an oak forest looks like in the East, then you have to go to the Smoky Mountains in Southern Appalachia.
Is that where you live?
That's where I now live. I was in Illinois and then in California but when I did my research I thought I have to see this primary forest. I grew up in the East, and I spent a lot of time in the forests but I had never actually seen a completely healthy functioning primary forest. You know it immediately. On my research trip, I hiked up in the oak growth, it smelled different, it sounded different, it looked different, there was this huge increase in species count, you see that just incredible ecosystem which is tough to witness anywhere else. After I did this trip and the months were going by. Then I thought: I like that, it felt good, and I felt happier and healthier. I went back and I bought a house where I've been living the last few years. The book literally changed my life.
The novel is called “The Overstory”, suggesting that there is also an understory. What is that under layer telling us?
The title is a play on words. There are elevations in the forest, the ground cover, the shrub layer, there is the understory and the overstory, also called the canapé. In one sense of the English title, the overstory is formed by the canapé trees, they are overlooking everything below them.
The English title manages to combine botanical and biological with the narratological and the social. We tell a story about ourselves, by "we" I mean modern Westerners in the last couple of centuries. Somehow we are separated, exclusive, autonomous, we see ourselves as exceptional, viewing the rest of life as a resource.
There was a time when even we in the West knew that other things had to form a central part of our story. That is why the book is fascinated with myths and legends, origin stories like Ovid and Northern American Myths, myths and legends from Asia, places where trees were central to the stories we told about ourselves. It is only recently in our culture of dominance, of mastery and technological control, that they disappeared. It is almost like we are ashamed to remember that our existence depended on their existence.
In the very first chapter “roots” you present nine families. Some are very elaborate, like the Norwegian immigrant family with its great grand children, but others are smaller, Olivia, for example, only reaches her parents by phone. Why is that?
The book has these nine characters and they all have profoundly different backgrounds and they become a strange kind of microcosm. I wanted was a cast that seems incompatible and completely divergent, but that is slowly brought together into a community.
Is this your idea of utopia for us humans?
Maybe it is a way of suggesting how interdependent we are, how deeply socially contingent we are.
In the first part there are sudden deaths. Why?
The sudden violence is concurrent with sudden revelation, those stories also have a common denominator: they all involve a moment of conversion. Sometimes violence does that: The story you are telling about yourself about being safe or lucky or invulnerable gets interrupted by something outside of your control. The book is preoccupied with this myth of mastery and control.
We live in this strange alienated condition, the technological world, where we think: some solution, some technological intervention, is going to come along to free us from fear and danger. But the book is saying: death is not the enemy, death is part of the renewal process. Everything is change, and we have to embrace it, we have to come back into that eternal.
Patricia, for example, the biologist, says that a dead tree has ten times more life in it than a living tree. If you remove the dead trees, you will damage the forest more if you let them be the nurses for the renewal of life.
What do think about our digital obsession? In your book it is represented by Neelay Mehta, a young nerd in a wheelchair....
We want to be able to move through the world without being touched, to have mastery and control without any danger. It is a migration away from the living world into the imaginary symbolic world. That is the epidemic, the complete logical extreme of what we are trying to do with civilisation. Neelay calls his game "mastery" but he has a moment where he says, wait, it is not working, we are just recreating capitalism in cyclical way. Neelay goes to his company and says: we created a monster, why don’t we do a game that is about learning about how to have limits and learn how to take responsibility and accountability. He wants a game that is not about getting more, but is about belonging and interacting, connecting.
We had the Hambacher Forest protests in Germany, where demonstrators spent years living in tree houses. How do you think this struggle will develop between environmentalist and the economy?
When I read about Hambacher Forest I thought it could be a chapter in my book. It is the same crisis, and it is often represented as romanticism versus pragmatism and economic efficiency and that’s just wrong: what is more practical? Living inside the limits of the earth in a sustainable and renewable way or spending all of the principal of the earth and externalising the cost. When you are taking lignite out of the ground you are not making money you are actually creating health and environmental costs that you will be paying for forever. Meanwhile the forest represents services that we get for free, it is renewing itself, it’s filtering the air, the water, and it is creating soil. We actually get wealthier when we work with, rather than against, the forest.
Trump and his administration are trying to get rid of half a century of environmental policy. They are going to the National Forests and Monuments and trying to open them for mining. But the Smoky Mountains Park brings in a billion dollars a year, but there is no way you can get a billion dollars in forty years of cutting down resources, it is not about economics, it is about control, about privilege and mastery.
So these battles will increase?
They will have to. Here is the interesting thing: we stopped telling stories about human desire and non-human desire because we thought that war was over, we thought we won that war there was no opposing us anymore, we defeated nature. Now we are realizing that we did not win that war, in fact it seems that we are loosing that war because every month brings a new catastrophe. We have to remember that the world does not want the same things that we do. And now we have to once again tell stories about how to continue to live here.
Should we feel hopeless?
We also have to remember that we are miraculous! We need to hold on to the fact that among all the creatures on the earth, we can actually start working towards a different future. The trees have been around for four million years, they are going to survive, the questions is how do we connect or reintegrate with them. Now that is a profound thing to hope for.
Western societies talk about the rise in loneliness. Does that also have to do with nature slipping from us?
That is exactly right. Psychology calls it "species loneliness". It is like in the computer game Fortnite, we invented this game called human advancement and we give ourselves a gold star every time we do a good thing, but how could you believe in the gold star when you invented it, it is totally narcissistic.
At one point in your novel you say that people are not interested in hope and truth if there is no benefit in it for them.
The antidote to commodity-based meaning is a sense of life-based meaning. We misunderstood what Darwin said when he wrote about the survival of the fittest. We see it as a competition, the strongest survives, but in fact being the "fittest" means being the best adapted to the environment, having the most sustainable interdependent relationship with other living things. Money and success is never enough. When asked, how much is enough? Rockefeller answered: "just a little bit more".
In 1972 Christopher Stone’s book was published “Should Trees Have Standing” and it was read by one of your characters. Should there be rights for trees, oceans, or animals?
Bolivia and New Zealand think so and we will see whether their new legal systems are more successful in creating a healthier and happier humankind. The argument is absolutely persuasive: Ultimately human welfare depends entirely on the harm we commit to other living things, so it is not a separate question to say should trees have standing. If our survival depends on trees continued life we have to protect them legally in order to protect ourselves. It is just self-defence.
Interview by Stephanie von Hayek.