To the delight of literalists everywhere, the main character in “Tree,” the inventive debut novel by Melina Sempill Watts, is actually a tree. Growing in Topanga, now a hippie-chic enclave west of Los Angeles, the titular coast live oak is a California native, but not one of the flashy, famous ones. It’s no coast redwood, the tallest tree in the world, nor a massive giant sequoia, whose thick trunks make it the largest tree by volume.
Coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) are the deep green mounds that stand out in summer-golden hills, the keystone species of the biome known as California oak woodland. Ubiquitous from the Mexican border through Mendocino County, typically growing within 60 miles of the Pacific, oaks do not have redwoods’ natural charisma. Their trunks are dark, their leaves thick, leathery and studded with pin-sharp points on the margins.
The oak serves as Watts’ protagonist through hundreds of years: It encounters indigenous Chumash people who use its acorns as a staple of their diets, then Spanish explorers; it grows through the Californios period and into present-day Los Angeles sprawl and its newly built dream homes.
Watts, an environmental and media consultant, delves into the tree’s world with the meticulous detail of a naturalist: “New voices were popping in all across the valley, husky chanting coming in a chorus from the scattered pack of white sage, black sage, purple sage,” she writes. “The dusty muted sharpness of their parallel scents came across loud and clear with little teeny pricks of sweetness from the honey-scented violet flowers some of them were already sporting. Hot powdered sandstone cowboy sage floating clouds of cowboy perfume. The raspy laughter of cattails thinking about forming fuzzy batons filled with a veritable megalopolis of seeds. Frogs calling out. Crickets. The vain little moans of willows growing near the creek.”
Her tree communicates, first with other plants — in a surprisingly touching way considering that they are, you know, plants — and then animals, including humans. The conceit could fall into a too-clever slog, but manages to largely avoid cuteness or pleasure at its own novelty. Watts’s coast live oak is never named or gendered — she sidesteps “he” or “she” in favor of the inclusive “e” — but it has a rich inner life.
Is this fantasy? Magical realism? Maybe, but not quite as much as you might think. Over the past 15 years, the notions of plant sentience and communication, once considered goofy anthropomorphism, have gained increasing credibility in the field of botany.
Trees do, in fact, “talk” to each other via earth and air. Plant roots and fungi in soil come together to form a third thing, mycorrhizae; in this union, they have a symbiotic relationship, trading plant-produced sugars for fungi-extracted nutrient minerals. Carbon travels via the fungal network between plants of the same and different species, a spruce sharing with a beech, for example. Trees under attack from roving giraffes or very hungry caterpillars release gases to alert others that they may be the next meal; the warned trees can increase the levels of bitter chemicals in leaves to ward off their animal predators, or even send out pheromones to attract predatory wasps.
So while it is an imaginative leap for Watts’s oak to find kinship and heartbreak with an annual grass, which meets its desiccated, brown end during the summer dry season, it’s based on real biology. But Watts amps up the concept with pathos, such as when Tree wonders if cross-species relationships are too painful, confronted with the next crop of grass seedlings: “Tree knew without a doubt that the whole herd would be gone in a year. And the idea of befriending these sweet little plants and then watching them grow and die was unbearable.”
This mismatch of timescale also comes between the tree and its human companions. Just as the life of a butterfly, as little as a week or two as an adult, seems impossibly short for humans, the lifespan of a human — our mere 80 years — is just the fraction of the lifespan of a tree, whose age stretches to centuries. To Tree, the stories of humans in the novel have the compressed, accelerated quality of obituaries: There are births, deaths, triumphs, tragedies, building homes and losing them within a span of a few pages — a surprisingly comforting perspective.
Ultimately, the tree and the various organisms it holds dear — ranch owner María Marta, modern third-grader Enzo, the grass, a horse — find that their connection is more about emotion than scientific transaction. While Watts finds inspiration in the science, she doesn’t limit herself to it. No science suggests rocks are alive, yet Tree is guided most by a stony companion whose advice ripples through the book’s plot: “All things are alive,” the ancient rock intones. “Nothing lasts forever. Love what you have while you have it.”
Late in the fall, bedecked with acorns like a night beach strewn with grunion glittering in their thousands, the tree shed one large, ripe acorn from its upmost, valley-facing branch. This release felt sweet — like watching a young bear off to forage on his own for the first time — and even tree could not resist a little dollop of joy at the departure of this perfect seed. Maybe. How many thousands of acorns every year? How many eaten by insects and mold, animals and heat? How many inherently unable to sprout? How many desiccated by summer and so destroyed? How ridiculous, really, to have any feelings for any offspring at all. And yet — the tree felt the large acorn falling through the clear air with a rush and felt the hope like a pretty little indecent thought roiling around an old mind.
And released the thought as soon as it came. An acorn is one of many. How few are chosen. How few survive. How few become tree.
Tree’s roots reached deeper into the stone in which they were interlaced and morsels of rock crumbled away, shocked at the sudden freedom from the main of the mountain. The pure rock stood fast against the infinitesimal onslaught. Both rock and tree enjoyed the creep and struggle. Tree’s love for big things like sunandwaterandbreezeandstone dominated once again. Love for little things is dangerous, because little things are fragile.
But little things love themselves. And this acorn fell and hit the dead leaves beneath the tree with a thud, and after a tiny bounce, rolled to a stop. Motes of dust rose in the air, sparkling in the light.
Editor’s note: Idiosyncratic grammar and run-on word are reprinted from the text.
Three more books that take trees seriously:
- “The Overstory” by Richard Powers (2018): The National Book Award–winning novelist weaves together nine stories of people whose lives hinge on encounters with trees in an ambitious celebration of the wondrous natural world that also manages to be a fast-paced thriller.
- “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate” by Peter Wohlleben (2016): Translated from the original German, this surprise nonfiction bestseller provides a layperson-friendly overview of the scientific evidence that shows plants have their own unique intelligence.
- “The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, A Woman and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods” by Julia Butterfly Hill (2000): The memoir of the environmental activist who spent an astonishing two years living in the canopy of a more than 1,000-year-old Humboldt County redwood tree.
- By Melina Sempill Watts
- 246 pages, Change the World Books, $18