|© Albert Bierstadt / Art Resource
By Richard Powers
I read Patricia Westerford's chapter a few months ago and was so moved. Nearly wept. I have thought about it often since. I packed the book for my train ride to Montreal last month, in hopes of advancing with the story during the 11-hour trip. Instead, I re-read her chapter and it produced the same effect. Love.
"She becomes her father's star and only pupil for the simple reason that she alone, of all the family, sees what he knows: plants are willful and crafty and after something, just like people. He tells her, on their drives, about all the oblique miracles that green can devise. People have no corner on curious behavior. Other creatures—bigger, slower, older, more durable—call the shots, make the weather, feed creation, and create the very air.
"It's a great idea, trees. So great that evolution keeps inventing it, again and again."
"Watching the man, hard-of-hearing, hard-of-speech Patty learns that real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze. As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking."
"Sophomore year, Patty gets a job in the campus greenhouses—two hours stolen every morning before classes. Genetics, plant physiology, and organic chemistry take her through evening. She studies every night at her carrel until the library closes. Then she reads for pleasure until she falls asleep. She does try the books her friends are reading: Siddhartha, Naked Lunch, On the Road. But nothing else moves her more than Peattie's Natural Histories, books from her father's shelves. Now they're her endless refreshment. The phrases branch and turn to catch the sun."
"With few claims on her time and none on her soul, she turns back outside, into the woods, the green negation of all careers. She no longer theorizes or speculates. Just watches, notes, and sketches into a stack of notebooks, her only persistent possessions aside from clothes. Her eyes go near and narrow. She camps out many nights with Muir, under the spruce and fir, completely lost, turned wildly around by the smell of inland oceans, sleeping on beds of thick lichen, sixteen inches of brown needle pillow, the living earth beneath her bag, its fluid influence rising up into the fiber of her and all the towering trunks that surround and watch over. The particle of her private self rejoins everything it has been split off from—the plan of runaway green. I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
"Her public reputation, like Demeter's daughter, crawls back up from the underworld. A scattering of scientific papers vindicates her original work in airborne semaphores. Young researchers find supporting evidence, in species after species. Acacias alert other acacias to prowling giraffes. Willows, poplars, alders: all are caught warning each other of insect invasion across the open air. It makes no difference, her rehabilitation. She doesn't much care what happens, outside this forest. All the world she needs is here, under this canopy—the densest biomass anywhere on Earth."
This is where I lose it.
"But I'd want to sign the papers." He peers out into an opening in the western firs, where the sun has undeniably started to set. "Because then, when I die, you could get the pension."