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Get Growing: Tree tales


  • The W. Pearl King Prairie Savanna east of Mechanicsburg, Ohio features 350-year-old oak trees and rare flowers. DISPATCH VIA TNS/Adam Cairns

  • A remnant of giant redwood forest in Marin County, California. STAR-TRIBUNE VIA TNS/Simon Peter Groebner

  • The Big Tree at Goose Island State Park in Texas is more than 1,000 years old. CONTRIBUTED VIA TNS/Pam LeBlanc

  • The cover of “The Overstory,” a novel by Richard Powers. W.W. NORTON & COMPANY

For the Gazette
Published: 9/27/2019 12:04:37 PM

This summer I’ve been reading a novel titled “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 and has been praised by leading environmentalists as well as literary lions. It’s hard to describe the book’s meandering plot. It involves the interwoven lives of several disparate people whose paths cross as a result of their interest in trees.

A couple of weeks ago I happened to be in Vermont having dinner at the bar of a country inn where I was staying. I was by myself and I had brought Powers’s book to keep me company. A few minutes after I sat down, a young woman sitting across from me spied the book and exclaimed, “Oh! You’re reading that book?” I replied yes and she sighed, explaining that she had started it but hadn’t been able to get far with it.

I had to agree with her that the first part of the book is thoroughly disjointed. In separate chapters, the author introduces each of the characters who will eventually find their ways into one another’s lives. Among them are a
Norwegian immigrant in antebellum New York, a Chinese engineering student fleeing the Communist takeover of his country in 1948, a disturbed Vietnam veteran, and a botanist who studies how trees communicate with each other. But from the very first page, the theme of trees and their interconnectedness with each other, with the earth and with human beings is established.

As I tried to explain to the young woman in the bar that the book was really about the incredibly interesting world of trees, I knew I wasn’t going to win her over. I doubt I myself would have been persuaded by my passionate but befuddled declaration. I am not a literary critic. So I won’t even attempt to go into further detail about the structure of the book and why it works so well. But as we look ahead to cold weather and more time indoors with good books, I recommend “The Overstory.”

Speaking of trees, this is a great time of year to plant trees. The University of Massachusetts Extension Service recommends planting trees any time before Columbus Day weekend. This will give the root system time to take hold before the ground is frozen. Fall weather is gentle on new trees. The cooler temperatures decrease the chance of stress. Plants lose less moisture through their leaves, a process known as transpiration. When the air temperature is cooler than the soil temperature, root growth rather than top growth is encouraged. Increased rainfall helps root systems form. Be on the lookout for trees to go on sale at local nurseries.

A caveat here: it’s been dry as a bone in western Massachusetts the past few weeks. If you do plant now — trees, shrubs or perennials — make sure you keep everything well watered. I’m doing a daily rain dance but so far it isn’t doing a lick of good. Who knows though. By the time this piece is published, we might be building an ark.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Dahlia show at Tower Hill

I think of dahlias as eye-candy. They are so gorgeous you can’t believe they’re real. On Sept. 28 and 29, Tower Hill will host the New England Dahlia Society’s third annual show. There will be hundreds of flowers in every size imaginable, from silver dollar to dinner plate. The show is set for Sat. 1 to 5 p.m. and Sun. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Gathering rain at home

Rainwater collection is a straight-forward, practical way to provide water for all your outdoor watering needs. On Oct. 5 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the Hitchcock Center in Amherst will host a workshop on collecting rainwater led by Kris Walter, principal of Gathering Rain. Walter will discuss the concepts of system design. You can build one yourself or use a DIY kit. The session is free but registration is appreciated. Go to for more information and to register.

Landscape design clinic

When you look at a lovely and well-ordered landscape, do you ever wonder how it came to be? Most likely, a lot of careful planning and design sense went into its creation. On Oct. 19 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m, Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge will offer a clinic on Landscape Design: Introduction to a Coherent Process. This session is led by Walter Cudnohufsky,  the founder and former director of the Conway School of Landscape Design, will introduce design students, homeowners and others to an opportunity-finding and problem-solving design process. This all-day workshop is a prerequisite for the Landscape Design Clinic II course. For more information and to register, go to: Members: $115/nonmembers: $125.

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