And that's ok."
It has taken me a whole year - and I'm not quite finished yet - to read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Overstory. And it has been a struggle to get as far as I have in the book. The first part of the book introduces the reader to eight characters. From then on, each chapter, even within chapters if you can call them chapters, reveal a new point of view from characters that you are supposed to remember being introduced to a number of pages prior. It's all very confusing and I would have given up if not for the fact that the writing is so beautiful. It's about trees, but also about human connection to trees and the will of some to fight for trees to be treated as a legal entity - with rights.
The most interesting part to me has been the description of a couple who climb a mammoth Redwood in Oregon to try and save it from loggers. The vivid scenes of them swaying in the wind and watching the stars at night made me wonder if the author, Richard Powers, had actually stayed in a tree house to write about the experience.
I started the novel before Covid lockdowns, having heard some recommendations from friends. I've spent most of my career educating about and advocating for the natural world so I thought, right up my alley.
Once Covid hit and I got into the middle part of the story where the chapters intertwine various characters, my head started to spin and I lost interest. I relegated the book to the shelf in the basement where I keep books to donate to the library for their annual sale. Wouldn't you know it, the library closed and there was no sale. So when our book club met outside around a fire pit one cool evening in the late summer I was reminded about the book by a friend who had finished and loved it. "Maybe I'll give it another try," I thought.
I dug it out of the pile of books that had been accumulating all year and started reading again. I didn't bother going back to figure out who was who because I decided the best way to get to the end was not to worry if I couldn't keep track.
Life has been like that with Covid. I try not to worry too much about things I can't control (like someone else's story structure) so that I can enjoy the day to day living that is required to get by in these trying times. If I can keep my health, take a walk, talk to my family, and pet my cats, I'd say my life is pretty full. I have a lot to be grateful for. So if it takes me another year to finish this book (because I now have two more books I'm reading sitting by bed stand and on my Kindle), then who cares? I'm just relishing the writing. I'm just enjoying the pleasure of reading while I am able.
In 1837 George B. Sudworth, submitted a paper to the American Forestry Association describing the forest of the Great Smoky Mountains: a primeval forest 'scarcely ever broken by the sound of a woodman's ax', a forest 'truly of virgin character.' Within 100 years the landscape would dramatically change. Men working in the Smoky Mountains as part of the newly created US Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, described the forest as a wasteland, filled with slash left behind by lumber companies who cut what they could and abandoned the rest to the ravages of forest fires. Indeed, in Elkmont, Tenesee, the Little River Lumber Company did just that.
The Little River Lumber Co. is credited with engineering a railroad with technology that allowed harvest of timber at a scale never seen before in the region. In the early 20th century, the company bought up or leased land from homesteaders. And when ownership was dubious, they went to court to make a claim. As they did, the company moved operations into elevations up to 4,000 feet above sea level to access virgin stands of tulip polar, chestnut, and hemlock. The company had specialized steam-powered rail engines, called Shay engines. These engines were able to chug up the steep grades and handle the sharp curves. Lumber co. men threw buckets of sand on the tracks for traction.
And as the railroads inveigled their way into the forest depths, so did the the lumbermen and their families. They lived in shacks called set offs. The first ever mobile home, these 12x12 spaces were placed on flatbed railroad cars and trudged up the mountains. Two or three might be set next to each other to house families while the men worked for the company harvesting lumber. Communities sprouted up along with them, stores, blacksmiths, makeshift schools, and when operations were moved, so did the community.
It took a small army to cut and load the trees on the rail cars. Men used steam-powered 'skidders' wheels of long cable let out and dragged up sides of slopes to where the logs lay. The cable was wrapped around the trunks to pull them off the slopes. Afterwards, the men used a crane with a large tong attached to it which lifted the logs onto the flatbed. Once they stacked twelve or more logs, the train carried them down the steep slopes to town.
Although chestnut trees were plentiful at the beginning of the 20th century, by 1925, a fungus blight was ravaging the forest. It was estimated that in some locations chestnut made up forty percent of the forest cover. Hence, they were an important tree for the ecology of the region. The nuts were foraged by turkey, domesticate hogs, cattle, and humans. The wood was rot resistant, lighter than oak, and used for a variety of utilitarian purposes throughout the U.S. It was a valuable commodity in the Smoky Mountains and the Little River Lumber Co. harvested most of it from the watershed before the blight spread. But once the blight spread, the fate of the chestnut was sealed. When the company came upon trees hollowed out from the blight they left it to rot.
By 1937, the Little River Lumber Co. had ceased operations in what was then the inaugural Smoky Mountains National Park. After decades of harvesting most of the virgin timber in the Little River watershed, they sold their land holdings to the federal government for the newly established National Park. Families moved, and those that stayed were not allowed to cut timber for firewood or building. In addition, the government forbid them to hunt, or to raise cattle and livestock to graze in the mountain pastures. People who could, moved out or were bought out by the government. The old chestnut trees were either dead or dying and although there are still a few places where one can visit old growth forests in the area, a majority of the Smoky Mountains is second or third generation forest. As for the chestnut; scientists are working on a remedy: a hybrid that may resist the fungus. There's hope then that maybe I'll get to see a mature chestnut tree within my lifetime.
Weals, Vic. 1993. Last Train to Elkmont. Olden Press.
Maher, Neil. 2007. Natures New Deal.Oxford University Press
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.