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Dr. Grauer's Column - The Overstory

The Overstory: Book Review 

Even if you are certain that climate change is a scheme concocted by ill-informed or badly motivated socialists, you still have to know that billions of trees have vanished due to clear cutting of forests. This cutting is done mainly so we can industrial farm things on those lands. When you convert virgin forest to industrial farm, the impact on soil fertility and local climate is immense and inestimable—man can’t recreate the natural (forest) conditions for growing anything—it is too complicated and impactful to the soil and ecosystem. Only a prayer can address something of this magnitude and this, in a sense, is The Overstory

That the human animal thinks he can actually improve upon any God-given ecosystem is also an Overstory—and a lavish and amazingly told one by the brilliant novelist Richard Powers [1]. 

Increasingly, today’s industrial farms require patented seeds, engineered to produce sterile plants—imagine producing sterility intentionally! Industrial farming controls pests and disease with chemicals with names like Roundup, Rage, and Firestorm (from well to do, global firms like Dow and Monsanto). After a few cycles, this practice renders the soil depleted. (Many scientists and historians have now determined that soil depletion has been a basic factor in virtually all past civilization collapses.) When our government in the U.S. claims they are improving conditions for “the farmer,” it is industrial farming they are referring to, not at all our traditional farmers who use regenerative methods to keep soil and ecosystems in tact. (That is noted not as a criticism, rather a distinction almost always left unexamined.)

Grauer Senior Kai S. '20 at the beach cleanup project he organized, with Cody D. '20 and English teacher Christina Burress - January 18, 2020

The process of replacing natural systems with industrial systems as a way of prospering is logical and necessary if you stick to very short-term thinking and self-serving, human-centric behavior—it is the way of disconnecting human activity from natural ecosystems so as to control them. Danny Kahneman (fictionalized with another name in The Overstory) got the Nobel prize for proving something we all know: humans are not as rational as we think. 

Humans harbor all sorts of subconscious presumptions which govern our behaviors. Hence, we may fail at even simple logic – we can’t fully trust our own conclusions, but we fight and kill for them anyway. For instance, man has frequently gone to war to fight for causes that, years later, appeared completely different and not worth fighting for after all (Iraq? Guatemala?). Humans make all sorts of decisions that seem logical or even necessary at the time and turn out to be terrible. (Read about the experiments of Stanley Milgram and have your mind blown, I guarantee it.) Humans knowingly pollute habitat that we could easily see other species need for survival—and we knowingly pollute or destroy our habitat so that is becomes unusable for future generations. How rational is that?

What side are you on, environmentally? We each think we are making political/economic decisions based upon our wisdom and experience, or superior logic or information. And yet, psychologists can predict, based upon personality inventories, people’s opinions about human entitlement to natural resources. If you want to know where someone stands on the issue of clearcutting, for instance, it’s much more reliable to check their political affiliation than their background in botany or their IQ. How rational is that?

We are great at measuring human intelligence in many limited ways, such as through IQ and scholastic aptitude testing. We are not careful, however, about measuring resilience, open-mindedness, immanence, or numen—if we were, we might have better schools and role models. Can we change the definition of intelligence to include a greater spiritual and ecological sensitivity? That would be a fantastic challenge for our schools. “Out beyond the ideas of right-doing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there,” said the Sufi poet Rumi. This is wisdom beyond intelligence or reason or measure. We could be a little more rational if we put our minds to it!

Grauer 7th grade students Emerson and Urmila learning how to work with mini-horses as service animals - January 17, 2020

And so, our limited rationality has caused us to make very short-sighted, self-serving decisions as we have cut down the world’s forests and over-fished its oceans. We have assumed we can replicate or even improve on these complex, natural systems (tree farms, fish farms). These practices are increasingly appearing to be ridiculously simplistic (unless you look at them in terms of short-term financial gain). Only recently, botanists have learned that, through fungal threads (mycelium), many trees are connected with one another and not independent at all—no tree stands alone in a healthy forest. Cut down a birch tree and a nearby Douglas fir may suffer. Forest life forms are deeply, highly interactive, which is why nature is so creative. It is in this sense that a tree farm can never replicate a forest, even though large firms find them cheaper and faster to profit from. 

Forests have a craft of their own. Plants appear to have communal behaviors that humble and curious people may be discovering for many years to come. For instance, why is it that trees behave differently in forests than when cultivated by man? People, evidently egocentric by nature, will answer this question through their own political, religious, egoic, or cognitive lenses and limitations which create “sides” of an issue like clearcutting of forests—that’s an issue we can’t figure out though it would be obvious to a tree slug. 

Psychologists understand that the need to have sides, and to belong, are common human reasons for taking the positions we take. We’re so tribal, so limited in our perspective, that we cannot see how tribal we are. “We are all operating in a dense fog of mutual reinforcement,” is the way a character in The Overstory puts it. It is hard to imagine how human groups will ever agree on the fixes for global or long-range problems. 

Whatever opinion, theory or conclusion you may form will normally be considered “real science” only by the people who already hold those same opinions, theories or conclusions along with you. How rational is that? Here is a thought that would be alarming, were we not so used to it: when humans change groups or jobs or relationships, they are capable of completely changing views they were certain about as they adopt the different views of their new tribe.

Grauer students Sarai, Gavin, and Grace reading a clue for a treasure hunt in French class - January 17, 2020

Go on Facebook, where people in groups do not only draw opposite conclusions from the same data, but ridicule those who don’t draw the same conclusions as they do. Anyone who is married may easily recognize this condition! Here are two recent posts on a threaded, Facebook discussion where someone posed a contrary thought:  

“No need to take America over by terroristic force, or forced Sharia legislation, heck we’ll just give them the whole darn place through progressive idiocy!”

“I had to quit asking how STUPID can people be? They keep showing us.”

We believe that if we are in a group of others who agree with us, that means our belief is “the truth.” What happened to Rumi’s “field beyond right and wrong?”

A pervasive assumption that could be killing us and even result in our extinction is that human intelligence is the only actual intelligence. You can be ridiculed for considering if trees have any intelligence that is greater than humans, even though trees have been around for millions of years longer than humans. Trees and humans share a quarter of their genes. We have cut down 97% of old growth trees, many of an age of 2000 years or so. Loggers and builders may find this natural. But we humans don’t only kill trees, we kill each other, too. Wikipedia lists (by my rough count) 110 human genocides. Would trees kill each other? (I read somewhere that 170 million people have been killed by governments.) Humans are not only killing trees, they of course kill fish beyond the point that those fish can even reproduce or sustain, and they kill “pests” when they have no idea of the purpose of those pests in an ecosystem.

In the library, you can read about guerilla warfare and also about guerilla forestry (not to mention near extinction of gorillas due to habitat encroachment). But I digress. The point of The Overstory is, “We are living at a time when claims are being made for a moral authority that lies beyond the human.” “The law’s shortfall is that it only recognizes human victims.” What rights do non-humans on the planet have? Of what use is wilderness? “People and trees are in this together.” Our fates our intertwined. (On the other hand, if one “kingdom” is going to ultimately win out over the other, my money’s on the trees.)

Grauer 7th grade student Ronin learning how to pick up one of the chickens that resides on Grauer's campus - January 17, 2020

Genetic diversity is decreasing on earth and the decrease is increasing. This is substantially an outcome of cutting down over half of our world’s forests. Who can say they know what this will mean to the human life and mind?

Consider just the air we breathe. The chemicals in the air in an area lush with forests is different than the air in a world of few plants. Powerful molecules emitted by plants impact the way we think and feel. What is happening to our minds as we are removed further from breathing the volatile (and often still undocumented) compounds in the air in green and pliant places? Who can say? Right now, a lot of acreage in our national forests are being sold to the top bidders. “A trillion leaves are lost without replacement, every day … one percent of world forest [18.7 million acres], every decade.” Human logic as it is tells us that this is good for prosperity. But it can’t be good for breathing, and the World Wildlife fund estimated that 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation. Is it human reason that is turning the native forests of the world into high maintenance rectangles? 

Human logic has little track record in considering long-range impacts of the destruction of natural habitats. Long-range thinking is not the normal purview of the human—we are a high-speed animal. To regard the Earth as one organism, all partners with the air humans breathe, we will have to slow things down. Would humans be the best mastermind of such an organism? Who thinks we have the wisdom and rationality to know the answer to that? 

Consider our orientation to time: “Trees ten feet thick and nine hundred years old go down in twenty minutes and are bucked within another hour.” Demand for wood has tripled in my lifetime. We are clearcutting to make space for 120 new square miles of cropland per day. We are making decisions about things that live on a scale and time frame we can’t fathom. We can’t imagine the long-range impacts of our activity—it’s out of sight out of mind. You can watch an hour hand all day and never see it move—evidently, to the human mind, this means that the hand never moves. Botanists are asking, “Do you believe we are using resources faster than the world can replace them?” Do human groups and governments have the intelligence to answer, “Absolutely not!” because that is what botanists are answering. Or even “Maybe not.”

How can we prompt the changes we need for long range survival of trees? “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  …Yesterday’s political criminals are on today’s postage stamps.” Mandela. Name your hero or martyr. Today, it is traitorous to say: “Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.” In The Overstory, trees are the victims and ultimately the martyrs, as are their defenders.

Geometry students mapping out the relative size and distance between planets at a local park with teacher Peter Mannisto - January 21, 2020

In The Overstory, essentially all our ecosystems are victims, existing on earth purely for the benefit of a single species (humans). There is hardly a lake, pond, stream in the country that’s safe to drink from. And we’ve barely scraped the surface on learning how many wonder drugs come from forests we cut down. We keep thinking that when we destroy natural ecosystems it is to improve them. This is ultimately insane. If we cut down a forest, does any rational person believe we replace it with something better than a forest?

In the long run, cutting down forests is not an act of rationality, it is an act of control and ego. An irrational irony: People (though not the very wealthy) will end up spending more time in the “replicated paradise” they can find online than in actual nature; only the human can find themself seeking out and attempting to replicate the very thing we are destroying. Every day we replace more Amazon jungle with Amazon online shopping network. Why are we creating virtual worlds, anyway?—what do we want with them? Of course, they normally offer the opportunity to “win,” or to speed things up, or to control.

In the long run, sacrilegious as it might be, we have to ask where human self-awareness has gotten us as a unique species, what all our teaching has delivered. In our intractably contentious, political, irrational world, the best we can do is ask better questions: 

  • How many trees equal one person?  
  • If we knew the single best thing we could ever do for tomorrow’s world, would we even do it? 
  • Can we find ways to express our human reason without attempting to dominate the recipients of that expression? 
  • Can we reconnect our hearts to our brains? 
  • Can we reclaim our ability to communicate with plants and all forms of life, ultimately essential to our survival? 
  • Are we really going to clone our way out of this—and what other subconscious, magical thinking is preventing sane thinking? 
  • Dare we ask if all other species might be better off without so many of us? 
  • What would happen if we planned in tree time rather than in man’s breakneck, three to five year, strategic and corporate planning times. How about planning in seven-generation or even thousand-year increments? 
  • If the world is four billion years old, what does any of this matter? 

Can it be that the help we need as humans is not human help, not human talk, not our certainty, speed, speculation, guile and reason, but just sensitivity to the environment that existed long before us? It is written in The Overstory: “They will come to think like rivers and forests and mountains.” Amen.


Here is an “overstory” from Cambodia I just read, excerpted from “Tasting Sunlight” by Kalyanee Mam [2].

The people of Areng Valley are descendants of the Chong, known as Khmer daem, or the “original Khmer.” They have lived in this valley and on this land for over six centuries and have viewed this land as sacred. Here, “sacred” refers not only to the spirits that protect these fields and forests but also to the bountiful food this rich land offers. When See and Lat enter the forest, they remind their children to tread lightly; to not speak ill of the forest and spirits; and—when harvesting fruits, leaves, vegetables, mushrooms, and fish—to seek permission before taking, to never take more than one needs, to give babies and new shoots time to grow, to save today in order to harvest more tomorrow. In this way of life, when one abstains, one is rewarded with infinite gifts from the land. By taking less, one is promised more.

After the Khmer Rouge fell, Cambodia quickly moved toward an open-market economy. An influx of new people also arrived in Areng Valley, interested in exploiting this land for timber and farmland and imparting new market ideas into the Areng way of life: Cut down the trees. Fish the rivers. Take more before someone else grabs it before you. Use pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to ensure a bigger yield. In this way of life and this way of looking at the world, the land becomes finite. There are no ongoing gifts, no gratitude or respect, only resources to exploit and profit from. When one takes more than is needed, these resources become more and more scarce. By taking more, one is promised less.

See and her sister, Touch, prepare their baskets to go fishing in the ponds that form in the meadows not too far behind their homes. They walk out to the meadows and discover that all of the ponds have been emptied of water and only soft, slushy mud remains. They notice a pipe extending out of a dry pond and a motor sitting next to it. They recognize the pipe and the motor. They know these items belong to someone in the village who had been draining the ponds to harvest and sell the fish. All of the fish in these ponds would have fed not one family but an entire village for an entire season. Now no one else can harvest from these ponds, and the natural fish life cycle has ended as well.

[1] The Overstory, Richard Powers, 2018 - Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.
[2] Tasting Sunlight, Kalyanee Mam, Emergence Magazine

Dr. Grauer loves to hear from his readers. Please click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

Grauer Senior Kai S. '20 at the beach cleanup project he organized, with Cody D. '20 and English teacher Christina Burress - January 18, 2020

Grauer 7th grade students Emerson and Urmila learning how to work with mini-horses as service animals - January 17, 2020

Grauer students Sarai, Gavin, and Grace reading a clue for a treasure hunt in French class - January 17, 2020

Grauer 7th grade student Ronin learning how to pick up one of the chickens that resides on Grauer's campus - January 17, 2020

Geometry students mapping out the relative size and distance between planets at a local park with teacher Peter Mannisto - January 21, 2020

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