by Melina Sempill Watts
Change the World Books

"There could be no more perfect place in all the world. In all the universe. The center was here and Tree would never, could never leave such a spot."

Deep in the canyons of California stands Tree, a live oak flourishing amidst the plants and animals of the complex ecosystem and deep history of Topanga. To tell the story of Tree, Watts uses a third pronoun, "e," to stand for Tree and the other plants. This linguistic trick allows Watts to narrate the wild which she does with beautiful prose and startling imagery. The land is alive with thinking, feeling, and the enduring dialogue of the trees and plants communicating through rains, winds, drought, storms, wildfires, and, eventually, even across carved up subdivisions.

The long lifespan of the live oak means Tree is a witness to an altering landscape both by ecological wear and tear as well as human impact. Tree observes history as a sentient guard, rooted and patient as the animals trample grass, lightning sparks fires, men explore and settle quietly nearby, and later settle with more force and ruin. Through it all, Tree reflects on the processes of the earth and even communicates with a few humans who are in tune with the thoughts of Tree, open to the wavelength of nature.

This work of environmental literature has echoes of fantasy, for one cannot help but think of Tolkien’s talking trees, the Ents. But the California canyons are not a fantasy world, and Watts injects enough science to balance the magic of feeling and thinking trees. As a whole, the story of Tree is very modern and sophisticated once the reader relinquishes the idea that trees are only really alive in children’s books or in fantastical realms. There is a growing body of research and writings that consider trees as social beings. Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World, is a perfect scientific counterpart to Watts’s eco-novel. Considering the life of a tree is worthy of science and story, for the trees have lessons to teach in the stories they tell of what they have seen. All of nature mirrors humanity in tales of birth and death, renewal and longevity, symbiosis and change.

Watts presents the drama of the earth in one changing canyon through the ages.  The first half of the book details the majestic racket of the trees and plants growing and thriving together.  Few humans find their way to the canyon, but there are sightings of tribes, soldiers, Spaniards, and rancheros.  The march to the modern environmental crisis builds as the book progresses through Tree’s lifespan.  Knowing Tree’s history and point of view fuels the dread that the reader knows is coming with the 1960s and beyond when the canyon suddenly becomes real estate.

Watts blends a matter-of-fact tone and lyrical voice to the process of taming the canyon.  The work of the bulldozers mingles with the “shrieks of death” as a metallic rolling pin flattens the land while the earth groans and moans.  Plywood and steel, sod and fertilizer, and the architecture of the trees are replaced with right angles.  Tree, of the vast Topanga Canyon, now belongs to someone’s backyard and is strung with twinkling lights during parties and eventually overcome with fungi.  Watts is not content to write merely of environmental destruction; in fact, the story doesn’t veer into direct activism or didactic overtures.  There are no villains and heroes fighting over land use.  But Tree’s gentle, loving message, because it is e’s story, is louder than the chainsaws: “Grow. And plant an acorn.”

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