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The Overstory by Richard Powers

I was a kid when I learned that the oldest living thing on earth was a bristlecone pine growing in the mountains of eastern California. A gnarled and stunted thing, it wasn’t as visually spectacular as its sister sequoias to the west, perhaps the largest living things on earth, but I was overwhelmed by its antiquity. This tree was more than a thousand times my age. It predated not only the United States but every country I’d ever heard of. It was older than the knights in old stories, older than the Roman Coliseum, older than the pyramids. Since I first read about that ancient pinus longaeva, nothing about it has changed. Except one thing: now it’s more like a hundred times my age. Weird, but that’s the math.

The study of biology has matured even more than I have in the intervening years, and scientists have discovered things more wonderful yet. We now know, for instance, that many of the life forms we once thought of as individual are in fact offshoots of the same underlying organism. There’s a stand of quaking aspens in Utah that covers more than a hundred acres; every trunk is a clone of its neighbor, all sprouting from one massive root system. When one trunk falls, a new shoot replaces it. When forest fires burn them all, the plant survives underground, patiently waiting to resurface and grow itself a new canopy of leaves. How many years has this particular plant been doing this? For at least 80,000, maybe a million. Those numbers are so vast I don’t really know what to do with them. Even more difficult to process is the news that this awesome organism, known as Pando (Latin for “I spread”), may be dying just as we begin to understand it.

Fortunately for me, National Book Award-winning novelist Richard Powers has turned his attention to the topic of trees in The Overstory  ... continued