In The Guardian today, Richard Powers talked about his rather astonishing (and Pulitzer Prize winning) book, The Overstory. This book is quite something. No really. You should read it.
The book tells a story about the relationship between a few human characters and the trees that are slowly, deliberately, guiding the humans to save them. The trees have agency, subtle but profound. And when I was reading it, I would have these moments of feeling, "You know, this is TRUE."
The Guardian article centered on Powers' "religious-like" conversation one day standing among redwoods, finally knowing in the depths of his being that the world is interconnected, and that humans are not alone in being alive and powerful in this world.
“But once I started looking, I realized it’s not about the size and scale [of the redwoods] … it’s that I’ve been blind to these amazing creatures all the time.” The result was, in his own words, a “religious conversion”: not in the theistic sense, but in the sense of “being bound back into a system of meaning that doesn’t begin and end with humans”.
Sometimes, just sometimes, it hits you like a thunderbolt.
Part of my reason for writing The Other Land is to explore this type of deep understanding about the world we live in. But it is also a book that seeks to explore how such "conversions" can happen. What if people (men, let's be honest) in power in early medieval Europe had experienced such a conversion, right at the pivot-moment between Christian thinking and the old, traditional ways of knowing? What if earth-based beliefs and philosophies had experienced a Renaissance rather than analytic-logical-mathematical-scientific thought...i.e. "reason."?
Don't get me wrong, as a scientist myself, I admire science and its profound way of exploring some aspects of our world. I just don't think it is the ONLY way to know the world. And I think a lot was lost when these earth-based religions were stripped of their traditions and knowledge-base.
Just like Powers, I have had several such "conversion" moments in my life, moments that ache in my memory with beauty and a nice helping of transcendent awe. There was no God or super-power. I just experienced, simply, profound connection in a moment of wonder. Blip, it was there. And blip, after a few seconds, it was gone. But the experience of it is enough to stay with me for good as I write these books, and try to put into words the experience of a human being who lived and died knowing in her bones such things. She knew them because her ancestors, her mother and grandmother, raised her this way. And the world around her still supported a full knowing of the profound connections between the entire living human and more-than-human world.
One of my recent experiences of this kind I put into my book as an event in the life of my main character, Una. Here is the snippet from the manuscript:
One of those herb collecting days will always stand out in my mind. It was an afternoon of little work for me. I sat in the low grass of a small clearing in the woods without any care or demands on my time. I had been out collecting herbs earlier, it was true, but was now trying to decide whether to sleep on the moss of the forest floor or to return to Hop and my house. Sionnach was sniffing around, discovering things, as a fox does, with his nose.
The moss won, I’m afraid. As I sat, I noticed an iridescent beetle making its way nearby. It was long and black, shiny, with purple and red, yellow and white rippling across its tiny shell of a body. I don’t think I had ever looked closely at his kind, so my eyes followed him for a spell. He was drinking dew off the moss and using his long front legs to rend small bits of leaf from the moss and devour it. He was very efficient at his work.
I don’t know how long I watched him, but it was as if time stopped for a spell. He eventually moved on and made his way under a brown leaf, but to my surprise he never left its shelter. I waited for a time, hoping he would re-emerge. I thought maybe his hole was under the leaf and that he lived underground when not eating. I took a small stick and lifted the leaf, just enough to be able to glimpse what was happening underneath. The beetle was asleep, curled up on its side like a baby. His legs were tucked under him.
I watched him for a long time, asleep like that, and felt the most overwhelming surge of love. The love that I felt, that pierced me deep in my being, was for more than just the beetle; it was for life, the living essence of everything around me in the forest. Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched this tiny creature sleep, so much like human and animal babies sleep. It wanted what we all wanted: a safe, warm, calm place to curl up and rest. How tender and precious it all was.
For the first time, I understood that human beings had a singular purpose — all of us — and that was to serve life, in whatever form it takes. Our lives should be spent making sure the beetle has a safe place to sleep, that the bear and her cubs can curl up in their cave undisturbed, that we work with life, for life, rather than somehow at odds with it or destructive to it. This observation, and the surge of joy I felt at understanding it, was perhaps the most important moment of my life, at least as important as what I observed in my initiation. So many people ask “why are we alive,” and in that moment I feel I knew.
As I was pondering the beetle and his small, beautiful life, that was then that I heard a cry.
'Was this some kind of religious conversion? No, not really. But it was a widening of my understanding of what the word "love" encompasses. The word "connected" too. And what the word "responsibility" means on a level the embraces the needs of the more-than-human world. As the Amazon rainforest burns, I cannot think of a more important way of understanding the world that needs to spread if we are to survive as a species and not bring down much of the biosphere -- this leaving, breathing, alive world -- with us.
May Richard Powers' conversion happen to us all.
by Marie Goodwin