Right now, the trees in much of the U.S. are putting on a dazzling show, their leaves turning an array of colors–bright red, yellow, auburn–before they will eventually fall off and turn a rotting brown. I hiked through the Autumn trees today and wondered what they were thinking. Normally, I wouldn’t assume the trees had thoughts, but I had recently read Tara Campbell‘s new novel, TreeVolution. The novel–releasing Nov. 1 from Lillicat Publishers–is about trees who become sentient, begin speaking and eventually revolt against humans and all their environmental degradation.
TreeVolution, like all of Campbell’s work is insightful, incisive, funny, surprising, urgent, and thought-provoking. To celebrate Campbell’s new book, all this week on Queen Mob’s Teahouse, we will be featuring Campbell’s work. Come back tomorrow for an excerpt from TreeVolution.
In the interview below, Campbell discusses the ways trees communicate, the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and the future of her band of talking trees.
–Rion Amilcar Scott
1. So Trees, huh? Where did you get the idea to write about talking, rebellious trees?
Years ago I heard a report on NPR’s All Things Considered called The Sound of Thirsty Trees, featuring a team of French scientists who had created a way to listen in on the circulatory system of trees. They could hear whether water was flowing through xylem, or if there were air bubbles disrupting the flow, like when you’re drinking out of a straw and you run out of liquid at the bottom of the glass. I was fascinated by this ability to diagnose a tree in distress before any visible signs like browning leaves. I started thinking about what else the trees might want to tell us if they could. The more I thought about it, the more trouble I knew we humans would be in they ever got the ability to talk back and fight for their rights.
2. TreeVolution was a bit different from what I expected given the premise–trees that talk and eventually revolt–and your previous work. I was expecting something madcap, joke-strewn and explicitly satirical. Instead you’ve written something more “serious.” What do you hope readers take away from the book?
I was so fascinated by the circulatory listening device, I wanted to see how far this technology might go. Scientists are still deciphering the circulatory patterns they’re hearing, working out additional meanings they may have in the life of the tree. So there are already human attempts to communicate with trees. And studies of the mycorrhizal network between trees, the “Wood Wide Web” of roots and fungus underground, show that they’re already communicating amongst themselves.
Science fiction is all about “what if,” and I wanted to inch this communication question along a continuum of the possible. I would love it if people close the book and never look at trees the same way again. What will we hear when everyone can communicate with them? I mean, who really knows what they’re thinking?
3. Location is very important to this book. It takes place in Washington state. What is is about the trees of the Pacific Northwest that drew you to set it there?
I was born and raised in Alaska, and spent college and additional years in the Pacific Northwest. I love the feeling of walking through the woods and feeling enveloped by trees. Hiking in the mountains, standing at the top of a peak and looking down at the trees carpeting the slopes below you, you get a feel for how tiny we humans really are. Some people might find that depressing, but not me. It gives me hope for the planet. Even if we humans eventually kill ourselves off, the plants and trees and animals will get along quite happily without us–and what’s there to be sad about there?
When I first drove from Oregon out East, I found myself getting more depressed with every mile. It felt like everything was getting smaller and smaller the further east we drove. There are lots of wonderful natural spots out here, but the ratio felt inverted to me–natural spots out here vs. urbanized spots out there. I’ve since adjusted, and Washington, DC itself is pleasantly green, but I think everyone should take a trip out to the Pacific Northwest and see that lush, green wonder firsthand.
4. What about those of us living outside the Pacific Northwest? What broader messages might we take from TreeVolution?
The book is all about who has the right to make decisions about how we manage natural resources–or if humans should have the right to manage nature at all. In Alaska, I grew up always hearing about negotiations between government and Alaska Native tribes about everything involving natural resources and land rights: oil extraction, hunting, fishing, etc. Naturally, it wasn’t always a harmonious debate, but I grew up with the expectation that these agreements would be struck with indigenous input. Current cases like the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff indicate that this expectation is not held uniformly. From what I’m reading about it, the Army Corps of Engineers consulted the tribe late in the process and only with partial plans, in a rush to gain approval. And the project was rerouted from its original position north of Bismark because the white community didn’t want it to endanger their water sources. I suppose TreeVolution could cynically be called science fantasy, because it sets up a Native American protagonist to have equal input into how human beings will relate to the newly awakening trees. A girl can dream.
5. What’s next? Will we see the talking trees again?
TreeVolution actually wound up as a sort of origin story to the book I originally set out to write. I kept asking myself at various points, “Well, how did this happen in the first place?” and found out I was really interested in the answers to that question. So yes, there might well be a sequel. I’ll let the trees speak for themselves in their own time. I kind of wish they’d hurry up and mutate in real life, though, because we could use some help with the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff. I don’t think it’s a secret whose side they’d be on.
Tara Campbell is a Washington, DC-based writer of crossover sci-fi. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. Tara is the grateful recipient of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ (DCCAH) 2016 Larry Neal Writers’ Award in Adult Fiction, and the DCCAH 31st Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist. She’s an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and her monthly column at the Washington Independent Review of Books, Text in the City, covers all things books and writing in the DC area.