A man sits at a desk in a medium-prison, realizing he is here because of trees—his love of trees, his knowledge of trees. He traces the grain of the desk’s wooden top. If he was only a different creature, he could know more about this wood. He could know what rain it absorbed, what soil it grew from, every season it ever lived through.
Olivia is dead for a minute and ten seconds. She is taken to the hospital but escapes. For two days she hides out in her room, frightening her confused roommates. When she was dead, there were large, powerful, and desperate shapes that called to her. Someone or something spoke to her and used her for its disembodied thoughts. She asks the creatures what she should do.
She skips her finals, tells her parents she is not coming home, and is honest with her father. She speaks more openly with her parents than she has in a long time.
At night she lies awake, wondering what the instructions she received were. She is still, praying. Her roommates are infinitely dear to her now.
In a classroom on the first day of the new semester, Olivia looks outside and finally gets her call. The trees are beckoning, telling her to get up and go to her car. She is driving, an instrument of their will. The presences come and go while she drives from state to state.
In Indiana at the beginning of 1990, she sleeps in a parking lot that was once an orchard. A Swedenborgian planted the apple trees that were once there, and his seeds carried out unpredictable experiments. The trees are gone and the people have forgotten, but the land has not. As she sleeps, the beings of light fill the car and she is moved to tears of joy. They are some part of her, and are full of unbelievable beauty. They tell her she has been spared to do something. She is open to any assignment they give her.
On a television she sees while heading to a department store bathroom, she sees news of a town called Solace in California. A stunning, massive tree fills the screen and a voice asks why these last 3% cannot be spared, and Olivia freezes in her epiphany: this is it. The creatures have arranged this for her, she’s realized; “the most wondrous products of four billion years of life need help” (165). She laughs with certainty and heads toward Solace.
Ray and Dorothy head home after a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They have continued to act, but Dorothy has grown increasingly full of despair. She wants a child desperately but nothing has worked. She baits Ray, cries, gets drunk. His best response is silence, but he suggests adoption. She slurs that it would not be theirs.
Outside, the things they have planted for their anniversaries over the years continue to grow, but the humans notice nothing.
Olivia’s drive continues. She pauses to call and tell her parents that she will not be finishing school, and listens to their surprise and outrage with a sense of calm. She wishes they could see how clear everything is for her, but they cannot. She says goodbye and looks out at the sky, a “newly minted orphan” (171).
The drive continues to amaze her. Random attractions pop up and she delights in each one. Courage and confidence fill her, feelings that she has not had before. In Iowa, what she takes for a hitchhiker with a sign turns out to be a massive tree with a small sign hanging from a branch that reads “Free tree art.” Presences stir in her car. She pulls off immediately and follows the continuing signs advertising the art.
Finally, she parks near an old farmhouse, and a man a few years older than her comes out. He looks wild and sad and tells her she is the first visitor. He takes her into a building full of “talismans everywhere,” which “look like the work of an autistic Neolithic pantheist, unearthed by archeology” (175). She is overwhelmed, and walks slowly around to look at the pieces, all of trees, all labeled $0.
Olivia asks why he is doing this, and he shrugs that “free” is what the market can bear. He jokes that he will give her two-for-one. They trade names and shake hands—Olivia Vandergriff and Nick Hoel. He shows her the flip book of the tree, wryly saying his tree period is like his grandfather’s. Nick also tells her his extended family has sold this land “to the devil and his subsidiaries” (175) and he has two months to vacate. Stunned, Olivia asks why, then, he is giving his life’s work away. He replies that trees give everything away, and this action will be the last “piece” in his collection.
They walk outside to take a closer look at the chestnut. Nick tells her everything about it—how it came from Brooklyn, how it survived, how it grew, how it was a loner specimen that flourished. Olivia wonders aloud why he is done with it, and he flinches, telling her that it is done with him. Nick touches it, and parts cave in. It is a “dying god” (177), and Olivia’s heart aches. Nick asks her to take a piece or two of art with her when she goes, but she says she must tell him why she is here first.
Inside, Olivia tells Nick of her death, her transformation, and her plan. He thinks she sounds a little off but what does he know? She asserts that this must all mean something, and he concedes that he knows a little bit about the strangeness of living things. Her eyes wide, she tells him that it must have meant something that she saw his sign; she knows something is trying to get her attention.
Nick looks at her face aglow with purpose. He decides he wants to follow wherever she will lead. He lies awake that night, Olivia asleep in another room, his thoughts reaching in every direction and realizing that this is the first time he has had a plan in a long time. He tells her in the morning that he needs to leave the house in a month and get rid of his art, but he’s in.
Mimi’s career takes off but her heart still aches for her father. She takes up numerous sports and instruments and subjects. She has love affairs and turns thirty, then thirty-one, then thirty-two. She moves into the Portland HQ, into an office that looks out over a private wilderness of her own. The scroll goes along the walls of the office like a classical frieze. When she feels her chest grow tight, she looks at the trees outside her window and thinks of her father.
Her office is also where her colleagues gather for lunch. They often play games, but do not seem as impressed with Mimi at the trees outside her window. One day they are talking about the trees outside and something pulls her to leave the office and walk outside to the trees. The smell—a smell familiar from childhood—hits her nostrils. It is the smell of two million years. It seems to permeate her mind. She breathes in deeply, feeling an intimacy with the bark of the tree she stands in front of.
Her colleagues peer out the window at her but she does not notice. She sees a paper taped to one tree and reads that there is a town hall meeting on May 23rd for people to protect the city’s choice to replace the pines with a “cleaner, safer species.” Something stirs her—a memory, a prediction.
Douglas is near Damascus, Oregon, playing pool with some strangers. He is not very good, but he tells the men about his tree-planting job. One of them, whom Douglas sees as kind of an asshole, tells Douglas the uncomfortable fact that the company gets good-citizen credits for every tree he plants, and what he is ultimately doing is putting in babies so they can kill off grandparents. Eventually, his seedlings will just become a monocrop.
Mimi eats her lunch alone under the trees the next day. She imitates the arhats, breathing in and out. It is as if she is waiting for nothing at all. She thinks of the public meeting and though she usually hates political agitators, she finds herself telling a passing woman with a stroller about the meeting. Her father’s ghost stands under the pines, smiling at her.
Douglas is filled with anxiety and dread, wondering if he has really wasted his last four years. A trip to the library confirms the asshole’s claims about the trees. He leaves, and decides that walking is the only thing he can do right now to retain his sanity. He perambulates through Portland, hour after hour.
At one point he finds a flier advertising a town meeting to save the condemned trees. He locates the park and walks to it, setting up basecamp under the pines, which now feel like old friends. That night he dreams of Vietnam, and when he wakes he sees the trucks and men pouring in. They order Douglas to leave but he refuses to do so, even when they knock him down. The police come and take him down to the station, where he says his name is Prisoner 571.
When Mimi gets to the office early and looks out the window, she lets out a howl. The trees are gone, and she feels utterly bereft. She rushes outside and is overwhelmed by the smell of both anticipation and loss. She closes her eyes, outrage filling her. When she opens them, enlightenment flows in.
Neelay finishes his space opera. He founds and names a company “Sempervirens” and releases its first game—The Sylvan Prophecies. It becomes a massive success, which leads him to lease an office, hire employees, and incorporate for real. During the days he codes and continues to update, releasing The New Sylvan Prophecies.
Soon a large publisher named Digit-Arts offers to buy the brand. It makes sense, but Neelay is uneasy about it. The night he tacitly agrees to it, he cannot sleep. He undergoes the incredibly strenuous process of getting his paralyzed body out of bed, to his van, and down to Stanford’s inner quad. Though he is looking for insight, the trees tell him nothing. The branches tap, though, and point outward past the quad. He looks at the waving to the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he remembers walking with his father and encountering a massive redwood. This tree must be what he named his company after, and he must consult it.
Neelay drives up the switchbacks in the dark until he can go no further. He then uses just the chair, realizing how crazy he must look (though there is no one around). His tires spin and snap branches, and he screams. He wonders if anyone will come to this trail and rescue him.
He swivels a flashlight around and espies the tree he was thinking of. It is unbelievably massive, rising up beyond human comprehension into the sky. He remembers his father, then flicks his thoughts to his company. It comes to him—he cannot sell, for the point of the game is to keep playing, keep evolving, keep unfolding.
With this certainty he manages to break his chair free and returns to his van, then to campus. He breaks off the deal and assembles his staff in the conference room to tell them about this game, which will be called Mastery. In it players will inhabit a corner of a new Earth and will be able to dig, construct, build, plow, and travel down the branches of the technology tree. Other people, though, will be doing the same thing, and they will compete against and with each other.
The game is an astonishing creation, and once the employees start playing, they do not want to stop.
After two weeks of auctioneers and saying goodbye to accumulated possessions, Nick is done at the Hoel house. The strangeness of the situation with Olivia nags at him a bit, but he realizes that it really only does take a few minutes for a first impression that lasts forever. Their obsessions interlock and he feels the sense of luxury that he has a destination and a person to go there with. They do not have a sexual relationship, but his attraction to her and her guilelessness grows.
Before departing, they decide to bury the art and the photos and flip book. Nick feels a little terror mixed with thrill knowing that everything familiar to him is scattering in the air. They set off the next morning, Nick apprehensively asking Olivia how they’re going to find the tree protestors. She laughs that it will not be that hard.
Throughout the long hours of the drive they talk about anything and everything, or fall into comfortable silence. They hit a terrifying blizzard in the Sierras and Nick almost kills them both on the road. She smiles, nonplussed, assuring him that they will not be dying anytime soon.
Douglas is charged with obstructing official business, and while at first the judge is ready to sentence him and move along, Douglas’s sharing that he has a Purple Heart and an Air Force Cross and simply wants “the bastards” to stop destroying everything changes the judge’s tone. He gets a fine and three days of labor planting Oregon ashes for the city arborist. He stays on longer than he needs to, shrugging to anyone who asks why that the ash is a noble tree.
Douglas stays in Portland for a bit and reads up about guerrilla forestry in the library. He wonders if there would be any issues heading back to the scene of his crime, but he decides to do so anyway. The rage fills him as he walks into the now-destroyed park. The stumps ooze with their recent deaths.
He kneels down to count the rings, then writes “CUT DOWN WHILE YOU SLEPT.” He is doing this when Mimi comes out for her lunch. Since the night raid she has made phone calls, attended a meeting, and talked to two lawyers. When she sees Douglas, she runs at him in anger, asking why he has to deface the trees after he has killed them.
To her shame, she realizes he is not from the company. He tells her a bit about what he has been doing and she is surprised to know he was there that night the trees were cut down. The more she looks at him, the more he looks like one of those arhats—the twelfth one, amused by humans’ follies. Abruptly, he asks if she has a car and three hundred dollars.
Ray and Dorothy are in their forties, having replaced trying for a child with reading. They are voracious, devouring book after book. He wants a book for every need; she wants the neglected gems from used bookstores.
Their anniversary comes, and they forget to plant something yet again.
The redwoods knock the breath out of Nick and Olivia. Their size, their grooves, their straightness, their solemnity, are simply mind-boggling. The two pull over and gaze in awe.
After a time, they locate the “defenders of the forest,” which is not hard. There is a volunteer encampment not far from Solace where they see young people busily working in a camp. It is the nerve center for the movement, and is called the Life Defense Force.
An older man named Moses gives Nick and Olivia information and a meal. He says there are no assignments but they help as they see fit. He points out Mother N, a woman Olivia recognizes from TV. Mother N holds an orientation, giving a rousing welcome and call to (metaphorical) arms. Nick squeezes Olivia’s hand and she squeezes back; it is their first intimate touch, and he marvels at how he got to this moment with this person.
Mother N reminds everyone that the LDF takes nonviolence seriously and that newcomers ought to take passive resistance training. She then talks about Humboldt Timber, a company that initially was a family business and cut selectively, but dishonest choices of late have led them into cashing out their scraps of timber to make a great deal of money. This means getting rid of seven or eight-hundred-year-old trees, a tragedy the LDF cannot countenance. Mother N says the LDF will take anything the volunteers can give—time, money, effort, etc.
As Nick settles in, listening and observing, he decides he has stumbled into some sort of druid-tree cult. It is fascinating and begins to provide him with a sense of purpose. He and Olivia take part in raids, such as tying up machinery to hurt the company’s time and dollar. He paints their faces, making them all feel like more powerful and ancient beings.
One night the two of them choose forest names. It feels silly at first, but then correct. She gives him “Watchman,” which pleases him. He gives her “Maidenhair,” a name for a living fossil that was a native in the area before it disappeared and then reappeared. They sleep close to each other that night. Nick lies awake thinking for hours under the ever-living Sempervirens, the words of Olivia’s visible tattoo—“A change is gonna come”—echoing in his head.
Patricia is trying to distill the joy of her life’s work and her discoveries into her writing, but it is proving difficult. She lays out the marvelous things happening underground, the community of the trees, the communication between them.
She is married to Dennis now, who lives fourteen miles away in town. They see each other daily, and he is a great encouragement to her. This night alone, though, she decides the words will not come and walks down to the pond. She smells the fresh night air, listens to the forest sounds, and thinks of passages for her book as her head clears. A phrase hits her—“giving trees.” These two words “[seal] her own fate and [change] the future” (221).
In the morning she still works to find how to end the book. It finally comes to her when she thinks of the Buddha’s words about trees being wondrous things that feed, shelter, and protect all living things. When Dennis shows up, he exults in her work and encourages her to type it up and get it ready for the publisher. Her nerves flare up and she does not tell him of how deeply the trauma of her past visibility in the scientific community and her crushed reputation still sting, but she types up the manuscript and sends it out.
Six weeks later, her editor calls her with a flurry of compliments and assertions of the work being a great success. Patricia is startled, but her pleasure is somewhat muted by her sense that her cherished anonymity is forever gone.
Mastery arrives and it changes everything. The headquarters is in the Valley’s foothills and Neelay’s office looks out from the heights. He has a private space where he can sink his teeth into the world he has made. It still does not seem advanced enough for him, but he is working on a sequel.
Today he is taking an interview with a young man named Chris, who hopes to interview the industry’s rising star. Chris calls in and is enthused to be talking to Neelay. Neelay politely answers his questions and says the company is planning new surprises, new possibilities, new places. He hopes Chris will probe more deeply but the young man does not. Neelay realizes he likes Chris’s laugh and desire floods him, but he tells himself that if Chris saw him, he would be disgusted.
The LDF stages a carnivalesque protest on the highway. They are wearing masques and enact scenes of animals coming out of coffins and dancing wildly. Stopped commuters are annoyed but intrigued. The police eventually arrive, but it makes the national news. Reactions range from the protestors being heroes to criminals.
It is Professor Rabinowski’s last lecture before the final exam and Adam is sitting in class, listening to him talk about how humans’ psyches keep them ignorant of who they are, what they think, and how to successfully navigate through things even when the “fog” is pointed out to them. The class laughs, amused, but suddenly Rabinowski grimaces in pain, and excuses himself. In the hallway the students hear a thud and toppling boxes, but, shocked, no one does anything.
A pretty woman looks at Adam and wonders if their professor is trying to reference the Kitty Genovese-bystander effect. By the time an ambulance eventually arrives, Professor Rabinowski is dead. The woman and Adam have a drink afterward. He is not sure why people did not respond, and bitterly realizes that “learning psychology is, indeed, pretty much useless” (235).
However, Adam takes the final exam, is admitted to a social psychology program at Santa Cruz, and earns the nickname “Bias Boy” for asserting his scientific claims of how legacy cognitive blindness will always prevent people from acting in their best interest.
Adam meets with his beautiful and elegant doctoral adviser, Professor Mieke Van Dijk, who encourages him to narrow down a topic. After some conversation, in which Adam also thinks about how attractive she is, they settle on Adam researching how people in an ideological group get to the point when they think everyone else is blind. She says right now there are people claiming that there is moral authority beyond the human, and identifies the eco-activists. Adam scoffs that he hates activists and their sloganeering and orthodoxy, but he starts to muse that maybe there is something here—“Identity formation and Big Five personality factors among plants rights activists” (238).
Mimi and Douglas pull over to the protest. She is surprised that she is here, but the lectures and meetings and loss of her trees have broken her heart, and now these mountains feel like hers to protect.
Loggers, whose lives depend on cutting down the trees, carry opposing signs. An older woman with an authoritative mien shows up and announces that they will go for a walk now. The protestors happily follow her, and Mimi cannot believe she is making trouble like this, as the Ma girls were never supposed to act up. Now, though, the sneaky powers of the companies cutting down forests bothers her more than the righteousness.
The group walks through dense spruce with sunlight filtering down to the forest floor. One open vista shows fog wrapping around the trees, while another shows slashed and burned stumps and the imminent future of herbicide, monocrop, and death. Mimi enjoys Douglas’ presence even though he still seems a little wacky. They are part of this together, and they both sense the weight of the destruction.
At some a point the protestors cross onto private land. Mother N warns them not to get violent. She pulls out a megaphone to respond to the men in hard hats that swarm down from their machines. She announces that they are public lands, not private, and the group begins to sit shoulder-to-shoulder across the road. They use handcuffs and try to stand their ground even when the police show up and begin hauling them away. Even though the day seems to end ignominiously, with Mimi urinating on herself since she is not permitted to use the bathroom and with her getting fingerprinted, she knows she has finally given a day her all.
Dorothy prepares to go out for the night to sing in the choir she recently joined. It is one of her many hobbies and Ray is happy she has them. However, he knows the truth—that she is cheating on him. He has gone through his feelings of denial and disgust and now he just wants her to let him be near her as long as possible before she smashes everything to bits.
Dorothy parks her car, full of excitement at her growth and experience of new things. On the way home, though, she berates herself and decides to stop. That is, until she calms down and decides to pursue her addiction as far as it will go.
In the meantime, Ray is at home reading an essay about trees potentially having legal standing. His eyes swim and he can barely concentrate. He vacillates between probing the idea of trees and their rights and what is going on with Dorothy. The minute she suspects he knows, it will ruin them, yet concealment is killing him. It feels like his very self is dissolving.
When Dorothy comes home, she asks him about what he read and he begins to tell her before she drifts into sleep. He lies awake next to the woman he loves, and says nothing further.
Trunk finds Powers’ characters starting to come together, most notably in the protests in the “timber wars” of the 1990s. Nick and Olivia, as well as Douglas and Mimi, forge relationships that are based on their common desire to protect the trees as well as, later, their affection for each other. Though Powers is undeniably focused on the “overstory” of the trees, he does care about his human characters and provides his readers with meditations on what it means to be human—the good and the bad (Douglas, tellingly, says the main question he’s interested in is, “What the Fuck Went Wrong with Mankind?”).
First of all, Powers asserts the ephemerality of human life and our limited understanding of time. He explained to Yale Climate Connections, “We are phenomenally bad at experiencing, estimating, and conceiving of time. Our brains are shaped to pay attention to rapid movements against stable backgrounds, and we’re almost blind to the slower, broader background drift. The technologies that we have built to defeat time—writing and recording and photographing and filming—can impair our memory (as Socrates feared) and collapse us even more densely into what psychologists call the ‘specious present,’ which seems to get shorter all the time. Plants’ memory and sense of time is utterly alien to us. It’s almost impossible for a person to wrap her head around the idea that there are bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California that have been slowly dying since before humans invented writing.” Douglas, for example, inspects some of the cut trees near Mimi’s office and muses, “He doesn’t know how old this city is, but the tree was clearly a sturdy sapling before any white people came near this spot” (206).
Second, Powers shows how “plant-blind” most of us are. Ray and Dorothy, for example, do not notice the world outside until the very end of their lives, and only after Ray suffers extreme brain damage and paralysis and has to spend all day in bed looking out his window. The judge in the case for the injunction is surprised to hear about the things Patricia tells him in her role as an expert witness; clearly, even the smartest of people can be incredibly ignorant when it comes to trees. Being human also means being caught up in the drama—the drama of love, death, sickness, work, procreation, etc. It is easy to become distracted from the larger picture, something Olivia wonders to Nick: “I never knew how strong a drug other people are,” to which he responds, “the strongest. Or at least the most widely abused” (267).
Third, and related to the former point, humans consider themselves exceptional. Powers said succinctly in the Yale interview, “We humans are deeply, passionately addicted to ourselves. We think we’re the only game of interest in town. The stories that will do us some good, this late in the day, are the ones that can direct our attention, for a moment, to the astonishment that isn’t us.” Humans assumed (and some still do) that we were the only ones who had memory, could collaborate, could change, had agency—and of course, as articulated in the novel through the voice of Patricia Westerford, we realized this was not the case in the slightest. Olivia argues for a new understanding of the relationship, saying “We don’t put trees above people. People and trees are in this together” (339).
Fourth, humans are short-sighted, greedy, desirous of dominance, and self-interested. Making money or gaining/holding onto political influence matters more to many people than making sure their grandchildren have a sustainable future. Misinformation and scientific murkiness and obfuscation are useful tools in these endeavors, making it difficult for opposing voices—often those on the margins—to be heard. Commodity fetishism and individualism are entrenched, to say the least; Powers is fond of quoting Fredric Jameson’s observation that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. One of the most depressing lines in the book comes from Nick, who, from his perch in Mimas, surveys the land below and notes, “every tree he looks on belongs to a Texas financier who has never seen a redwood but means to gut them all to pay off the debt he took on to acquire them” (265).
Powers also challenges the reader to consider whether protest in the face of such utter devastation is even worthwhile anymore, and if any extreme to call attention to the plight of the natural world is morally justifiable. Powers told the Guardian, “I wanted to tell a story about ordinary people who, for whatever reason, have that realization about the irreversible destruction that’s happening right now and who get radicalised as a result. The book explores that question of how far is too far when it comes to defending this place, the only place we have to make a home.” It is up to the reader to decide whether not the characters’ actions were futile. Did Mimi, Douglas, Olivia, and Nick change anything? Perhaps another of Powers’s favorite quotes can give an insight into this question—Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”