Everything’s Dead but the Tree

Tuesday, June 3rd, 1986

[A lecture to freshmen on the last day of a year-long class in “Literature and the Arts in Western Culture” at Stanford University–June 3, l986]

Sisyphus’ setting, with its flaking rock and its hot barren landscape is the last of a long series of images of hostile wastelands we have been contemplating. Barren deserts, steamy jungles, blasted battlefields, rocky islands, polar ice floes, gothic swamps, wind-swept marshes, blackened cities make up the backdrop of much modern European literature–a setting appropriate to the period that brought us World War I and II and which may yet bring us nuclear winter. Most of these demonic landscapes are symbolic, representing as we have learned, the burnt-out quality of the modern: its loss of spiritual faith, loss of intellectual and moral clarity, loss of aesthetic pleasure, loss of belief in society, the family, the self.

But this symbolic imagery of physical desolation has a literal meaning as well, one that we have not encountered much in the works we discussed. Western culture, and probably world culture as well, has been involved since the beginning of the modern period not only in its own self- destruction, but in the destruction of the earth, the environment which has bred and nursed it. In “From a Plane,” a short poem included in your miscellany of poetry, Denise Levertov recognizes from the air “the great body…torn apart/ raked and raked by our claws” –treated by us like Lear and Gloucester by their ungrateful children. (more…)

Copy and Imitation

Saturday, April 28th, 2001

John Milton, Paradise Lost: 7: 309-338 [copied and imitated from Genesis 1-2]

Let th’ Earth
Put forth the verdant Grass, Herb yeilding Seed,
And Fruit Tree yeilding Fruit after her kind;
Whose Seed is in her self upon the Earth.
He scarce had said, when the bare Earth, till then
Desert and bare, unsightly, unadorn’d,
Brought forth the tender Grass, whose verdure clad
Her Universal Face with pleasant green,
Then Herbs of every leaf, that sudden flour’d
Op’ning thir various colours, and made gay
Her bosom smelling sweet: and these scarce blown,
Forth flourish’t thick the clustring Vine, forth crept
The swelling Gourd, up stood the cornie Reed
Embattell’d in her field: add the humble Shrub,
And Bush with frizl’d hair implicit: last
Rose as in Dance the stately Trees, and spred
Thir branches hung with copious Fruit; or gemm’d
Thir Blossoms: with high Woods the Hills were crownd,
With tufts the vallies & each fountain side,
With borders long the Rivers.

Steven Marx, “April the First”

The Spring god talked the green world into being.
She said to earth, “Push up the verdant grasses
And all the vegetation bearing seed
The fruit trees yielding their own distinct fruits
To hold and spread the seeds of progeny.”
And earth no sooner heard, still bleak and bare,
But that her crust burst forth with tender Grass
That softened to a face of smiling green,
And then with broad-leafed herbs that sudden bloomed
To dress her breast in luscious colored flowers
And fragrance sweet. And still more growth,
The lengthy vines emerged and soon grew thick
Swelling with squash and pumpkin. Ranks of grain
Sprang up in fields and shrubby chapparel
Sprouted impen’trable thickets. Climaxing
Above this growth, majestic trees rose
Reached out their overarching limbs adroop
With fruits and flowers, and crowned in groves
The hills, gave shade to springs riparian,
And bordered watercourses.

Exchange with Richard Powers

Friday, February 28th, 2020

From: “Powers, Richard S” <>

Subject: RE: ATTN: Richard Powers

Date: February 28, 2020 at 8:52:00 AM PST

To: “Steven R. Marx” <>

Dear Steven Marx,

What pleasure it was to get your good and thoughtful letter.  Your words were very satisfying to hear, and I was delighted to hear of the connections between your personal journey and the journey I made while writing The Overstory.  It also moved me to learn of Eagle Waltz, whose productive response to a challenging situation would have made a wonderful addition to my fictional version of that challenge.  I look forward someday to hiking that trail he mapped and built.  Thanks for telling me about it, and for taking the time to write me with your generous words.

With gratitude,

Richard Powers

From: Steven R. Marx
Sent: Wednesday, February 26, 2020 3:31 PM
To:; Powers, Richard S
Subject: ATTN: Richard Powers

Dear Richard Powers

I’ve been meaning to write to you since last September when I finished reading The Overstory.  I kept putting it off until now because I felt shy of requesting the attention of an author I so admired. The fact that the book affected me so deeply and personally was outweighed by reluctance to add to what must be a heavy load of fan mail from others in whom it’s created a need to share some of their stories.  But after all this time, and as I ready to tackle The Echo Maker, the resistance has crumbled.

I learned about The Overstory from Eagle Waltz, an old friend from back-to-the-land hippy days near the end of the road in Lund, British Columbia, where I moved from New York with my wife Jan in 1970, lived in the woods for nine years, and where we return annually with our children and grandchildren. Eagle was another exile at the time, from Germany, who was entranced by the wilderness and horrified, like all of of us, by the systematic destruction of old growth forests whose grave markers we lived among in the form of gargantuan springboard-nicked stumps.  Rather than merely learning to live with that grief, Eagle decided to try to save the few grand specimens still scattered through endless slash and second or third growth plantations by mapping and building a 150 mile-long hiking trail  connecting the old sages. He calculated that opening the back country to locals and eventually tourists would produce support for his lifelong efforts to negotiate with logging companies and the government to spare the last remnant, which it has done.

The book’s connection with Eagle and its portrayal of the pain of outsiders who moved to the woods and ended up in industrial logging zones created one bond.  But then there was Stanford/Palo Alto/East Palo Alto.  I had moved there first in 1963 to go graduate school in English in order to avoid the draft after being kicked out of the Peace Corps for being “too intellectual” and having “the wrong attitude toward authority.” Jan and I met at a poetry seminar In the Free University of Palo Alto, got into lots of trouble and fun as student activists, married in the backyard of a cottage we rented in EPA, moved to NYC  where I taught at Columbia for three years and then emigrated to Canada. Nine years later we returned to Palo Alto so I could complete the dissertation on pastoral ideals and the life cycle I’d started fourteen years earlier. My interest in trees was rekindled when, unable to secure decent academic employment, I became  a part-time arborist.  A couple of years later upon yet another return to Stanford as lecturer I also worked on the tree crew and wrote a piece for the Stanford Magazine about the combination. After four years, and having secured  a tenure track job at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I gave a  capstone talk for “Literature and  the  Arts in Western Culture” entitled “Everythihg’s Dead but the Tree.”

Its clear from descriptions of other books of yours I plan to read that trees are but one region of your exploration, and I look forward to discovering some of the others. But the striking intersections between the incidents, places and passions so compellingly narrrated in this novel and episodes in my life make me feel uniquely part of The Overstory.


Steven Marx