Overstory  and Underland

By Bernie Bell

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers.  To say that it’s good, or even to say that it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, is an understatement.  I read and read and read.  Sometimes I had to stop, because…I was too much immersed in it and…it wasn’t helping my state of mind – which can be precarious at the best of times!

The Overstory

What’s it about?  Hard to answer – I could say – people, people and more people, and…….trees. And…..how we, the people, are interacting, or not, with the trees, and ….other living things and….the whole planet, and….all that is.

Best advice is to read it for yourself, and see what you make of it – and what it makes of you.

The general themes of this book, reminded me of an exchange I had with a friend, back in  2012,  who had asked if I’d been to Michael Baille’s talk at the Orkney Science Festival  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Baillie   Here’s what I wrote, to her.  If you read ‘Overstory’, you’ll see the connection.  It’s all about connection.  Things….connect.  All things.  The trees can tell us things – if we pay attention.

“I googled Michael Baille, and read a bit about what he’s presenting.  Dendro-chronology definitely tells us a lot about the past.  Comet strikes are very likely to have disrupted human civilizations, as have volcanic eruptions and other natural phenomena.  You could have a look at ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond.  It’s very heavy going, and I gave up on it, after a bit, but the ideas are interesting.

It’s all part of it, a very big issue.  Natural disasters?, but, sometimes, why ever are people living in those places, anyway?  They know full well the land is unstable or prone to flooding etc.  Look at the San Andreas Fault, everyone knows it’s there, ticking away.  I could say that people are so arrogant, they think it’s up to them – that they can live anywhere they like – well, Mother Nature, and the Earth, lets them know otherwise. I must have mentioned to you, before, how it’s noticeable that the earth has been more un-settled in recent years?  Is it trying to clear us away?  As to the whole comet thing…….how many times, when I come across an extreme example of the horribleness of humans, and their destructive forces, do I say “The sooner the comet comes, the better” ?

I don’t know, if that’s what’s going to happen, and, purely selfishly, I’d like to see the little trees which we’ve planted, grow, but, that doesn’t matter, in the whole scheme of things, and if another comet is destined to get rid of us, well, that’s the way it is.  It’s probably happened before, it may happen again.  As long as the planet survives, something will remain, and start again.  As to why?  Who knows, are we some kind of evolutionary experiment which has gone horribly wrong and needs to be ‘flushed down the toilet’?  I don’t know.  Even if the planet goes, well, it goes, and so, space will change, in some way.  Earth started as space rubble, and might end as space rubble.

As I keep on saying, all I can think of, to do, is keep on, keeping on.  If we each try to do what we can, to learn and develop and be o.k. with others and with the world around us, that’s all we can do.  It does, to some extent, counter-act the destruction and muddle and madness of the poor, mad ******* who are bent on destruction – it does, and that’s all we can do.  The bigger picture, is too big for me to take on board, or cope with, so, I just………. go along, doing what I can, as best I can.

As far as I can see, Michael Baille’s work and ideas, are ones which I’m familiar with, from other sources.  One thing I feel is for sure – there’s damn all we can do about it if a comet is going to clear the place, again.  And, if we could do some kind of crazy, sending a missile at the comet scenario, should we?  Might we make things worse?  It may come to that, though, as folk are so scared of dying, scared of extinction, especially the ones in power, they think they’ve got so much to lose, as they think that what they’re doing, is so very important.  How very mistaken, they are.  They need to stop being scared, and try running the place, for what’s living on it, now, rather than fidgeting about the possibility of us being wiped out.  It doesn’t really, actually, matter.   Whether individually, or collectively.  What’s more to the point, is if our destruction, and the destruction of other species, is caused by us, that would be a shame, especially the destruction of the other species.  A great shame.  But, the planet would recover, and start again.

Michael Baille’s work is interesting, but I’d say he’s yet another person who is trying to prove something, which there’s not a lot of point in proving, as it ain’t going to change anything, or make things better.  That’s just my opinion, though.  If he wants to do that, fair enough.  Familiar ideas, as far as I can tell.  Interesting ideas, but using them to try to influence folk, now………I don’t see that happening.

He appears to be using the state of Britain, at the time of ‘Arthur’ ( whether Arthur is seen as ‘real’ or semi-mythical), to illustrate his theory, and it could do so.  There was definitely a time of famine, bad crops, resulting from the bad weather, and  there have been a few of those, through history.  Maybe caused by volcanic eruptions elsewhere?

I wonder about the effect on food, of the crap growing season we’ve had, not just in Britain, but all over the world.  Folk complain about the bad summer, but there’s a lot more to it, than that, it has a knock-on effect on food prices, fodder for cattle and therefore prices for meat, and milk, and that knock-on effect, is very far-reaching.  There would probably still be plenty of food in the world, and there are now the methods of transporting it, but we’d all have to work together, for that to work.  People all working together?  Hmmmmm.

I saw the ‘blurb’ about Michael Baille’s talk, but we didn’t go to it, as the subject matter is familiar.  There are lots of reasons why societies collapse, sometimes linked, sometimes not.  Sometimes folk could have done some things differently, sometimes not….if it was due to climate, natural phenomena, etc.  Lots of reasons, some we could have changed, others, not.  Some are just due to greed.  In fact, it’s something which I find helpful to consider, the fact that all empires fall, so, when I see the spread of Coca-Cola, and the damage they do, extracting too much water, where they shouldn’t, or MacDonald’s, or  even Tesco’s, I always remind myself, that all empires fall, as they have in the past.  We can sometimes see why, and sometimes it’s a mystery.  One thing’s for sure, humans think they’re invincible, especially the big empire-building ones, but they’re not, and their empires, always fall.  “My name is Ozymandias, King of kings, look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ – Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Indeed.  All things pass, for one reason, or another.

Don’t worry, be happy”

And, sent to another chum, in 2010, when discussing the potential for the ‘greening’ of other planets, by us, earthlings..…………………..

“Here’s a poem by my friend, Marty.  Marty describes  himself as an eco-goth. I’m not sure what that is.  I do know that  Marty is a good-hearted lad, who sees what’s happening in the world around him, he loves the world around him, he writes good, feeling poetry about the world around him, including a delightful, fanciful one about a cat, dancing, but he also wrote the one which I’m going to type out for you, now.  We met Marty through a poetry group we used to go to, when we lived in Suffolk.  When he read this out at the group, I thought it was good, but I then had bad dreams, for days afterwards.   I suppose that says that it’s good, too, but the bad dreams, were hard to take!

Here it is……..

The Amazing Mosquito Migration

We are to the world,




Silent assassins,

Crawling over the body,

Sucking the life blood

From the land.

Carrying disease,

Covering the world in woes.

Forgetting our place

Still we seek further

Victims, we spread

Our filth to the seas.

Then we look to the stars,

We rape the Moon,


Then travel to Mars.

Leaving behind our first

Victim; stone dead,

Covered in scars.

Yet, we look on,

Deep into space.

                               Marty Grief

You can see why I had bad dreams!  I don’t agree with Marty’s sentiments  here, I agree with some of what he’s saying, but not all, by any means.  I have a basic trust in the goodness of people.  I know they  can be utter bastards, too, but they can be astoundingly wonderful.   Marty knows that, too, and what hurts him, and sends him off into the  black-lands, is the knowledge of how great we can be, yet how dreadful  we often are.  I thought I’d send you this – not to bring you down, but because I think it’s good, and expresses a lot of what a lot of people are feeling.”

Bear in mind, that the above were written in 2010/2012, before Greta Thunberg showed us that ‘No-one is too small  to make a difference.”


I thought when I’d finished ‘The Overstory’, I would need to read something to settle me – something with surety. I settled on ‘The Hobbit’, in fact, thought I’d embark on the whole ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy again.  Those books, settle me, there is surety there.  Oh my lord though – The Ents, looking for the Ent-wives who are gone.

So, I’m going to read ’The Hobbit’ – get settled ( hopefully!), connect with Hobbit-kind, and their solid strength.  As well as being a bear, I incline toward Hobbitness.


And then – delve into ‘Underland’, by Robert MacFarlane, hoping that I don’t get lost or tangled in the roots.


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