"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.
Adams, Rachel. “The Art of Interspecies Care.” New Literary History, vol. 51, no. 4, 2020, pp. 695-716.
Andrews, Gavin. “All-World Aging: A Gero of All Things under the Material Press in Time.” Canadian Geographer, September 27, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1111/cag.12718
Andrews, Gavin and Cameron Duf. “Understanding the Vital Emergence and Expression of Aging: How Matter Comes to Matter in Gerontology’s Posthumanist Turn.” Journal of Aging Studies, vol. 49, 2019, pp. 46-55.
Anton, Ted. The Longevity Seekers: Science, Business, and the Fountain of Youth. U of Chicago P, 2013.
Athill, Diana. Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter. Norton, 2015.
Benjamin, Ruha, “Black AfterLives Matter: Cultivating Kindness as Reproductive Justice.” Making Kin Not Population, edited by Adele E. Clarke and Donna Haraway, Prickly Paradigm P, 2018, pp. 41-65.
Beresford-Kroeger, Diana. To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest. Timber P, 2019.
Bevington, Helen. The Third Way: Reflections on Staying Alive. Duke UP, 1996.
Braidotti, Rosi. Posthuman Knowledge. Polity P, 2019.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Human Condition in the Anthropocene.” The Tanner Lectures, 2015. https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_resources/documents/a-toz/c/Chakrabarty%20manuscript.pdf
Concilio, Carmen and Daniela Fargione, editors. Trees in Literature and the Arts: Human Arboreal Perspectives in the Anthropocene. Lexington Books, 2021.
DeFalco, Amelia. “Posthuman Care and Posthumous Life in Marjorie Prime.” Critical Humanities and Ageing: Forging Interdisciplinary Dialogues, edited by Marlene Goldman, Kate de Medeiros, and Thomas Cole, Routledge, 2022, pp. 283-292.
Dong, Xiao, Brandon Milholland, and Jan Vij. “Evidence for a Limit to Human Lifespan.” Nature 538, 2016, pp. 257-59.
Doolittle, W. Ford. “Uprooting the Tree of Life.” Scientific American, vol. 282, no. 2, 2000, pp. 90-95.
Erikson, Erik. Insight and Responsibility: Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight. Norton, 1964.
Fargione, Daniela. “Tree Photography, Arboreal Timescapes, and the Archive in Richard Powers’ The Overstory.” Trees in Literature and the Arts: Human Arboreal Perspectives in the Anthropocene, edited by Carmen Concilio and Daniela Fargione, Lexington Books, pp. 245-61.
Farmer, Jared. Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees. Basic Books, 2022.
Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. Aged by Culture. U of Chicago P, 2004.
Haraway, Donna. “Making Kin in the Chthulucene: Reproducing Multispecies Justice.” Making Kin Not Population, edited by Adele E. Clarke and Donna Haraway, Prickly Paradigm P, 2018, pp. 67-99.
—. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Prickly Paradigm P, 2003.
—. When Species Meet. U of Minnesota P, 2007.
Harley, Alexis. Autobiologies: Charles Darwin and the Natural History of the Self. Bucknell UP, 2015.
Hess, Linda M. “The Aesthetics of Wonder: Networks of the Grievable in Richard Powers’ The Overstory.” REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, issue 35, December 2019, pp. 189-206.
Horton, Zach. “The Trans-Scalar Challenge of Ecology.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol.26, no. 1 (2019), pp. 1-22.
Jordan-Marsh, Maryalice and J. Taylor Harden. “Fictive Kin: Friends as Family Supporting Older Adults as They Age.” Journal of Gerontological Nursing, vol. 31, no. 2, 2005, pp. 24-31.
Katz, Stephen. “Population: Is It Time to Revisit This Term in Aging Research?” Age, Culture, Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 6, 2022, pp. 1-5. https://doi.org/10.7146/ageculturehumanities.v6i.133332
Lee, Lewina O. et al, PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States), vol. 116, no. 37, September 10, 2019, https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/116/37/18357.full.pdf Accessed May 1, 2022.
Leshko, Isa. Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries. U of Chicago P, 2019.
Lowman, Meg. The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees above Us. Picador, 2021.
Marder, Michael. The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium. Columbia UP, 2014.
—. “What Is Plant-Thinking?” Klesis: Revue Philosophique, 2013, pp. 124-43.
Masiero, Pia. “’The tree is saying things in words before words’: Form as Theme in Richard Powers’ The Overstory.” DEP: Deportate, esuli, profugbe 41, 42, 2020, pp. 135-50.
Moon, Beth. Ancient Trees, Portraits of Time. Abeville P, 2014.
Moten, Fred and Stephano Harney. “The University and the Undercommons.” SocialText, vol. 22, no. 2, 2004, pp. 101-15.
Nadkarni, Nalini M. Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees. U of California P, 2008.
Nitzke, Solvejg and Helga G. Braunbeck, editors. Arboreal Imaginaries: An Introduction to the Shared Cultures of Trees and Humans. Green Letters, vol. 25, no. 4, 2022, pp. 341-55.
Powers, Richard. “Interview by Michael Alec Rose.” Book Page, April 2018 https://www.bookpage.com/interviews/22518-richard-powers-fiction/
—. Interview by Dan Kois. “The Death of Mimas.” Slate, June 20, 2022. https://slate.com/culture/2022/07/overstory-book-mimas-death-scene-richardpowers-interview.html
—. The Overstory. Norton, 2018.
—. “Richard Powers on What We Can Learn from Trees,” Transcript of a conversation with Ezra Klein. New York Times, September 28, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/28/opinion/ezra-klein-podcast-richardpowers.html
Quammen, David. The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. Simon and Schuster, 2018.
Rawlence, Ben. The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth. St. Martin’s P, 2022.
Rose, Deborah Bird. “Introduction: Writing in the Anthropocene.” Australian Humanities Review, vol. 49, 2009.
Ross, Alex. “The Past and the Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees.” The New Yorker, January 20, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/20/the-past-and-thefuture-of-the-earths-oldest-trees
Roy, Sumana. How I Became a Tree. Aleph Book Company, 2017.
Saint-Amour, Paul K. “There Is Grief of a Tree.” American Imago, vol. 77, no. 1, 2020, pp. 137-55.
Schwab, Gabriele. “Trees, Fungi, and Humans: A Transspecies Story.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 21, no.3, 2021, pp. 245-67.
Scott, Gilbert et al. “Symbiosis as a Source of Selectable Epigenetic Variation.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 365, 2010, pp. 671-78.
Séchan, Edouard, dir. The Stringbean (Le haricot). Janus Films, 1962. 17 min. https://archive.org/details/thestringbean_201507
Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Knopf, 2021.
Spengler, Birgit. “Arboreal Encounters in Richard Powers’s The Overstory.“ An Eclectic Bestiary: Encounters in a More-Than-Human World, edited by Birgit Spengler and Babette B. Tischleder, Transcript Publishing, 2020, pp. 65-89.
Stone, Christopher D. Should Trees Have Standing: Law, Morality, and the Environment. Oxford UP, 2010.
Thoreau, Henry David. October 23, 1855. Journal entry. https://blogthoreau.blogspot.com/2007/10/thoreaus-journal-23-oct-1855.html
Tsing, Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalistic Ruins. Princeton UP, 2015.
Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Harvard UP, 1984.
Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World. Greystone Books, 2016.
Woodward, Kathleen. “Afterword: Literary Antidotes to the Toxin That Is Ageism.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 46, no. 2, 2019, pp, 373-81.
—. “Ageing in the Anthropocene: The View From and Beyond Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises.” Literature and Ageing, edited by Elizabeth Barry with Margery Vibe Skagen, D.S. Brewer, 2020, pp. 37-63.
—. “Assisted Living: Aging, Old Age, Memory, Aesthetics.” Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, April 2012. https://arcade.stanford.edu/occasion/assisted-living-agingold-age-memory-aesthetics
—. At Last, the Real Distinguished Thing: The Late Poems of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams. Ohio State UP, 1980.
—. “Feeling Frail and National Statistical Panic: Joan Didion in Blue Nights and the American Economy at Risk.” Age, Culture, Humanities, vol. 2, 2015. https://doi.org/10.7146/ageculturehumanities.v2i.130617
—. “Inventing Generational Models: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Literature,” Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations, edited by Kathleen Woodward, Indiana UP, 1999, pp. 149-68.
Yasir, Sameer. “’Magic in Her Hands.’ The Woman Bringing India’s Forests Back to Life.” New York Times, September 2, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/02/world/asia/deforestation-india-tulsigowda.html?searchResultPosition=1
How to Cite
Copyright (c) 2022 KATHLEEN WOODWARD
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
From issue 6 (2022) onward, the journal uses the CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 license. The authors retain their copyright. For articles published in previous issues (1,2,3,4 and 5) the authors retain their copyright to their articles. Readers can download, read, and link to the articles published in issues 1-5, but they cannot republish these articles. Authors can upload them in their institutional repositories.