Failing Bodies and the Failing Planet

First of all, you must read The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is a powerful novel –a story in the best and oldest sense of the word – about trees, nature, and the place of humanity in the cosmos. And it’s about psychology – how much we are affected by our peers, our culture, how hard it is to step aside, how dangerous it can be to think outside our conditioning, but also how necessary. The mood of the book is at once lyrical and dire. Humankind does not appreciate the intricacy and power of nature and seems not to want to learn.

As elders, we will be especially moved by this book and its characters, many of whom we follow into old age. We will want to warn the next generation. But how are the old (myself, the author, all of us) to tell the young and the disenfranchised that they cannot have what we had – new cars, wooden houses, air conditioning in home and vehicle, all of it?  And we had it without guilt. We had the advantage of not giving any thought to clearing a lot, building a house, driving a big car just for the fun of it, having as many children as we could afford to support – and never considering what the earth could support.

We know better now. In part, we learned from our own bodies. We are paying for our early smoking, drinking, drugs. We take statins, use inhalers, go to physical therapy. Athletes are getting joints replaced and hoping they did not land on their heads too many times. Surgeons replace arteries clogged with the fat we ingested thoughtlessly. Dayspring mishandled. And as we retire, we have time to look around at our devastated planet – a devastation that we funded with our new houses and cars and expectations that progress meant we could have more and more. Our bodies and minds know that perpetual progress is a myth. We know this as we nurse our knees and grope for that name we can’t remember. We know this by going back to the neighborhood where we grew up and looking for the woods we played in. The planet too has paid for our mistakes: global warming, plastic continents floating on the ocean, butterflies that never return.

In the middle ages there was the idea that the human body was a microcosm of the universal macrocosm – and each individual grew old in this post-lapsarian world just as the world also grew older, decayed from its Edenic beginnings. But the Enlightenment assured us the world was progressing, not regressing. In the seventeenth century, George Hakewill made an early appeal for the idea that life on earth, that earth, was improving, progressing – and yet even he realized what this meant for the idea of microcosm/macrocosm: “And though whiles I have laboured to free the world from old age, I feele it creeping upon my selfe.”

But the truth is, whether or not humans are accurate microcosms of creation, we are most definitely part of the macrocosm and most definitely not in charge – as much as it might temporarily seem so. In trying to overcome and overwhelm the natural world, we have forgotten we are only part of that world. Irretrievably imbedded in the macrocosm. It is true of a tree; it is true of homo sapiens.

One of my favorite characters in The Overstory is the (fictional) scientist Patricia Westerford – at one point she says: “Trees stand at the heart of ecology. And they must come to stand at the heart of human politics. Tagore said, Trees are the earth’s endless efforts to speak to the listening heaven. But people – oh, my word – people! People could be the heaven the Earth is trying to speak to.”

This novel is full of stories and statistics that will frighten you. They should frighten you. But it is also full of the glory of creation. There is a theory (from Carl Sagan among others) that if humanity was evolved by creation for a purpose, we are perhaps an effort by the cosmos to become aware of itself. Through us. Perhaps our task is not to overcome, but to appreciate. Old people should be good at this. We are also, perhaps (because elders have often stepped out of economic and romantic competition), capable of what one of the characters in Powers’ book calls unbinding. His question is this: Can people come to independent moral decisions that run counter to their tribe’s beliefs? Unbinding. Seeing things outside of cultural norms.

We have lived long enough to know the costs to the world we live in for the lives we have led. To recognize the difference between cost and value. Look around you. Unbind. And read the book. Richard Powers says it far better than I can.

And for more on trees, look at my “Fable About a Soccer Mom.”



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