"Old Trees Are Our Parents"
Old Growth, New Kin, Forest Time
Keywords:post-human aging, multi-species kinship, old growth, longevity, temporality, environmental humanities
“Old Trees Are Our Parents”: Old Growth, New Kin, Forest Time
We are aged by culture, as Margaret Gullette has perfectly put it, her emphasis placed on the negative associations sutured to being old in capitalist societies. What would it mean to be aged by trees? To grow old with trees as our companion species? To understand that “old trees are our parents,” embracing the knowledge that we humans share a lineage with trees? I approach these questions through the prism of the magisterial novel The Overstory (2018) by the American writer Richard Powers, singling out three scenes that offer parables of post-human aging: first, humans humbled in comparison with trees in terms of longevity; second, a new understanding of what constitutes the genetic lifeworld of Homo sapiens; third, deep knowledge of the green world on the part of humans who have learned across their lifetimes and into their seventies to embrace the wisdom of trees. If the first scene calls up feelings of awe, including the sublime, the second engenders feelings of family and kinship across species, and the third, the consolations offered by the guidance of trees, developed over the long evolutionary temporality of forest time. Forest time: the timescale, or agescale, of the life and death of trees mediates the timescales of geological long time, the emergence of life on the planet, the time of human history, and the life span of Homo sapiens. I focus on four of the major characters who, some seventy years old at the end of the novel, exemplify old growth, simultaneously feeling they belong to a forest world that is both vital and old, a sanctuary, and envisioning a regreening of the planet that is in grievous peril of being stripped of its forests. Methodologically this essay is an experiment in multi-species literary ethnography through close reading of a single contemporary novel, which has had an extraordinary impact, and in the context of recent transformative research on trees. The evocative phrase “old trees are our parents” comes from the nineteenth-century American naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, suggesting a literary lineage as well as a genetic lineage across species—humans and trees.
Submitted: 10 June 2022
Acctepted: 24 October 2022
Published: 22 December 2022
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