The Overstory: Maybe nature isn't so red of tooth and claw

So I’m nearly through the “Roots” portion of the book which follows the emergence of eight human characters’ stories. The last four sections are titled Trunk, Crown and Seeds. What a perspective on creation this is and a much needed shift in perspective. Nature isn’t all tooth and claw, that’s just the animal world, those of us who make our lively hood from killing and eating the plants which alone create their own food from thin air, water and light. Maybe we can learn from them?

I’ll be interested to see how my fellow natural world lovers feel about this, @SkovandOfMitaze, @jpm, @Randy, @Dale, @LM77 and all of those who I fear I’m leaving out.

Here are some of my favorite quotes so far:

It’s a miracle, she tells her students, photosynthesis: a feat of chemical engineering underpinning creation’ entire cathedral. All the razzmatazz of life on Earth is a free-rider on that mind-boggling magic act. The secret of life: plants eat light and air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things.

You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes. . .

This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.

…trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t red in tooth and claw, after all. For one, these species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons. But if trees share their storehouses, then every drop of red must float on a sea of green.

And, for @Christy:

The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.

I may have found my latest Bible.


Great quote. :slight_smile:

It sure sounds like at least a good part of it fits with lowercase ‘id’.

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I like it and I agree in part. But I also know that even within plants there is a battle of toxins against herbivorous insects, the leaves of the insectivorous plants like the pitcher plants and even the mycorrhizae highways where fungi keeps insects and nematodes alive to draw out as much nitrogen as possible to feed the trees and in return the trees gives them carbohydrates. Or even pollination schemes of figs.

But I do agree not all of nature is as directly brutal and that forests are ecosystems which become almost hive like with the underground highways. This world was definitely full of flora before fauna and especially before us.


Yes, my favorite of the eight main human characters, Patricia is a botanist who is first celebrated for showing how trees signal one another of impending threats and then hounded out of academia for going against the dominant paradigm which insists on seeing trees as passive. Trees and plants generally defend themselves chemically. So by putting out chemical signals which let other trees in the area know what they are dealing with, they can get started on their own chemical defense before the pest even gets to them. I think you would like the amount of chemistry and biology, though I’m sure you’d also notice instances of poetic license which do not bother me. :wink:

As an example, here is the rest of the paragraph from which I took the next to last quote:

The things she catches Doug-firs doing, over the course of these years, fill her with joy. When the lateral roots of two Douglas-firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through those self-grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless thousands of miles of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into communiy chests … It will take years for the picture to emerge. There will be findings, unbelievable truths confirmed by a spreading worldwide web of researchers in Canada, Europe, Asia, all happily swapping data through faster and better channels. Her …

And here it joins the part I included:

…trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t red in tooth and claw, after all. For one, these species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons. But if trees share their storehouses, then every drop of red must float on a sea of green.

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Sounds like a really good book.

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It’s definitely a really cool subject. I first came across it in Teaming With Microbes by Lowenfels and then again in The Hidden Lives of Trees by Wohlleben. (Which also takes a tiny on a bit of poetic explanations as well). But I also don’t mind it. I think a emotional investment in nature is just as important as a technical understanding of it.

When explaining wolf spiders carrying their babies on their backs I often romanticize their mother qualities with a bit of anthropomorphism. It makes for a better story that is just as true where it matters for the sake of inspiration.

I’ll have to look up all the authors and books you’ve mentioned. I have a feeling another shutdown is looming and want tons of books to read.

There is also a joke that plants are actually farming us.

I think you’d appreciate Barbara Kingsolver’s review of the book written for the NYT you so often quote. She thinks Powers is amazing in his command of both the science and the story telling, and I’ve heard it described as the best story told yet about creation care. I think you are more like me in being critical of man’s hubris at the expense of every other living thing. This is link is to Kingsolver’s review:

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That sounds like The Botany of Desire. That was immensely popular and such a good read. If you haven’t read it you would definitely like it. Ken Burns level research going into telling the story of four plant’s relationship with humans: the apple, the tulip, the potatoe and marijuana - representing objects of four human desires for: sweetness, beauty, control and intoxication.

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And even leafy trees were latecomers on the scene.

Remember the tree in Avatar?

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Sounds like a great read, will have to look for it. To some extent, plants do fight for light, however, and push and shove to get their place in the sun. Even the twigs and leaves of trees bend and grow to catch the rays before they can travel to the understory.

Yes, like that one quote said

I can’t help but think it’s like that for we animals too. The coyote takes a rabbit but not with malice but with need. Our human world of commodities is pretty different. It never feels like we take a life to feed ourselves when we choose between cleanly packaged choices for meals. The lives have already been taken and been arrayed on a shelf to appeal to our whims, though some will no doubt be thrown out when pull dated rendering those deaths pointless. But the red in tooth and claw is simply a consequence of a choice made by our progenitors. We don’t have the means to live off light, water and air directly. We need the bodies of plants that can make energy out of those ingredients or of other animals which have fed on plants or on animals which have acquired that energy from plants at some point. I guess the biggest difference between plants and animals is the degree to which individual plants submerge their individuality into the community. Most animals don’t seem to fear their individual end once that end is inevitable, though as plants will mobilize their chemistry to fight off pests we animals will also martial our capabilities to elude our destruction so far as we can.


Now that home-tree was one primordial tree. The ancestor tree wasn’t as impressive.

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Love it! It sounds like a really thought-provoking book.

Certainly, from my perspective (in the long grass looking under an old log!) nature can appear to be a bug eat bug get parasitized by a wasp only to get caught by a spider world. Bbbbuuuttttt… I think I’d like to caveat that a bit.

In my view, unlike humans, natures violence is always limited to what is proportional and necessary. The spider doesn’t kill all the flies; the ladybeetle doesn’t eat all the aphids on the plant; the wasp doesn’t parasitize every caterpillar in the field. Sure, we can talk about evolved strategies to swamp predators with sheer numbers so that some young get through. However, I think when I look at the whole and not the part, I an earth that is a delicately balanced ecosystem. Tennyson’s much co-opted description of “nature, red in tooth and claw” has, to me, always sounded like a Victorian projecting the British Victorian obsession with order and ‘proper’ behaviour on what would have been seen as savage and untamed nature. Personally, I’ve always thought that “Nature is dependence and interdependence”
would be a better description (of which trees in a forest might be a good analogy). I’ve also thought that this “dependences and interdependence” is one of the reasons we (rightly) get so concerned about habitat destruction, human driven extinction, invasive species introduced by humans, coral bleaching, etc. The web of nature is a delicate thing; breaking too many strands can have devastating implications for the structural integrity of the entire web. Western humans may have retreated into cities but we are no less dependent and interdependent on the natural world around us.

As an aside, when Nature Documentaries start talking about the savageness of nature; how it is ruthless; brutal; shows no mercy; delights in causing death, etc. etc. I always get suspicions that religion/philosophy is about to be smuggled into an otherwise enjoyable science programme. C’est la vie… :wink:


I think it is also worth remembering that predators only appeared on the scene somewhere between 540 million years ago and 2.5ish billion years ago (depending on how you define predatory behaviour). But even we consider simple eukaryotes absorbing other eukaryotes as ‘predators’ that still leaves a good billion years (a third of life’s history) where nature was happy with simple, peaceful, harmless, photosynthesis.


We are studying the “Poets of the English Mystical Tradition” in theology. I thought of you when we got to e.e. cummings and his poem, " i thank You God for most this amazing." It begins like this:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

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Sounds like a load of nonsense to me. Plants are just as competitive as other living organisms - killing other plants by denying them sunlight, water, soil, or even by producing chemicals which interfere with the germination of the seeds of other plants. Its called allelopathy.

None of this is to say that evolution is only about competition. Cooperation is another strategy that works and can be found in evolution also. And I have no doubt whatsoever that this can be found in the plant kingdom as well as in the animal kingdom.

Big fan of cummings. There are many lines which should give an atheist pause. Some favorites include this one about whose name I’m not sure.

life is more true than reason will deceive
(more secret or than madness did reveal)
deeper is life than lose:higher than have
–but beauty is more each than living’s all

multiplied with infinity sans if
the mightiest meditations of mankind
canceled are by one merely opening leaf
(beyond whose nearness there is no beyond)

or does some littler bird than eyes can learn
look up to silence and completely sing?
futures are obsolete:pasts are unborn
(here less than nothing’s more than everything)

death,as men call him, ends what they call men
-but beauty is more now than dying’s when

And especially the lines I bolded in this one:

of Ever-Ever Land i speak

(of Ever-Ever Land i speak
sweet morons gather roun’
who does not dare to stand or sit
may take it lying down)

down with the human soul
and anything else uncanned
for everyone carries canopeners
in Ever-Ever Land

(for Ever-Ever Land is a place
that’s as simple as simple can be
and was built that way on purpose
by simple people like we)

down with hell and heaven
and all the religious fuss
infinity pleased our parents
one inch looks good to us

(and Ever-Ever Land is a place
that’s measured and safe and known
where it’s lucky to be unlucky
and the hitler lies down with the cohn)

down above all with love
and everything perverse
or which makes some feel more better
when all ought to feel less worse

(but only sameness is normal
in Ever-Ever Land
for a bad cigar is a woman
but a gland is only a gland)

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Thanks for that. We learned that e.e. cummings spelled his name wtih no caps because his publisher recommended it. Good call!

Our library is partially reopened, with curbside pickup of requested books. They have “The Overstory,”
but I’m first going to read “Stand up straight and Sing” by Jesseye Norman. I’ve heard her sing at the Met.

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