The Natural World as Governing Force

In The Trees, Ali Shaw challenges the natural order of things

As long as there have been stories, humans have tried to assign meaning to nature. What is the natural world to man, if not a governing force, a collective of anthropomorphic beasts calculating our demise, or an arm of a vengeful god? Or is nature more appropriately considered as the perfect order of things, the model by which we are meant to live and let live, to surrender to the perfect imperfection of surprise? Ali Shaw challenges all of these perspectives and more in his novel, The Trees. Shaw opens the book with a great, creaking transformation — the contemporary world (from the vantage point of England) is suddenly interrupted by a thick forest. In a great burst, the earth groans, splits, and a snarl of fully grown trees choke out man’s development. Shaw’s work is imbued with the mystical feel of an older tale, but its inclusion of 21st century elements give it an apocalyptic sensibility. Though Shaw’s premise feels at first a little thin, like it would have been better suited to the confines of a short story, eventually it is the depth of his characters’ interactions and their subsequent understanding of each other, as well as those characters’ understanding of what the trees — the event of their growth — means to each of them that elevates Shaw’s work beyond a simple journey through an unknown world to a complex and otherworldly meditation on nature.

Shaw’s book is told from an omniscient third perspective that shifts between members of a small band of travelers, but he begins with former teacher, Adrien. An everyman eating takeout and watching Westerns at home when the trees come, Adrien’s life is entirely devoid of purpose. His wife is away on business with another man, in Ireland, and Adrien has all but given up on his own life. Shaw’s writing as he describes Adrien encountering the sudden growth is lush and reverent. As he describes the moment of the trees’ arrival, he establishes both his voice and the all-consuming power of nature:

The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming upper-cuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. It sounded like a thousand trains derailing at once, squealings and jarrings and ducklings all lost beneath the thunderclaps of broken concrete and the cacophony of a billion hissing leaves. Up surged the tree trunks, up in a storm of foliage and lashing twigs that spread and spread and then, at a great height, stopped.

“In the blink of an eye, the world had changed.”

Shaw’s musical diction and awe of natural world shine in his work. The opening scenes of destruction give his characters a push to leave — they want to find out if the trees blanket the globe; they want to find food; they want to get to their loved ones. Adrien joins Hannah and her teenage son and they set off for Ireland. Though Shaw’s pace in the 500-page tome is initially slow, it picks up. The journey becomes dark, and each character’s losses impact their world-view deeply.

Though The Trees follows a classical quest structure, Shaw deviates from a too-strict interpretation of the archetype because his protagonist is not the seeking hero who looks for retribution, salvation, or even a treasure. Adrien’s reluctance and laziness make him a more contemporary protagonist, and lend complexity to what could have become too simple or easy. He has to be pulled along his journey rather than pursuing a lofty ideal. Adrien “wanted to be a good man,” Shaw tells us:

“[I]deally a great one. A man who would go down in history as the solver of some global crisis or the architect of some peace treaty (he didn’t much care which). Yet he also wanted to get up late. He wanted, if at all possible, to sit for most hours of the day in his boxer shorts, eating junk food…”

Adrien’s lack of purpose drove a wedge into his marriage long before his wife left. When the trees come, it no longer matters that he’s jobless and listless. But the journey to Ireland with the others gives his life activity, if not immediate purpose. Adrien, who had never been one to spend time outdoors, has to reconcile his ideas about the natural world, his sense of right and wrong, and who — or what — he wants to be.

Shaw’s premise, the immediate and total growth of trees, creates a catalyst for personal consideration within each character. Relationships, likes, dislikes, and world-views are all heightened in the shadow of the new growth. While Hannah, a former worker at a nursery, sees the natural world first as perfection, she has to consider also its heartlessness and unaffected cruelty. “Now that things are back to normal,” a man they encounter says, “there isn’t fairness. There isn’t compromise. There is only the coming together of force against force. Stags locking antlers.” Hannah’s son, Seb, an amateur web designer and writer, has to live with the ephemeral nature of disappearing human creation. His friend, Hiroko, a Japanese student stranded on a field trip, struggles to put into practice the training of a mountain man who took her through America’s forested areas. “Look the world in the eye,” he told her — and yet staring murderers and a new, lawless existentialism in the face once the trees come is difficult. Shaw includes mystical beings — kirin, and what the characters call “the whisperers,” small creatures inspired by medieval carvings of natural grotesques — these familiars draw the characters onward, leading toward the realizations Shaw wants them (and us) to make.

While at times, Shaw succumbs to the temptation to overwrite his character’s conclusions (“Love was a trail through the forest of yourself,” he writes at one point), his sure hand shows in how he writes the journey of this haphazardly assembled band through a forested continent. Shaw’s language sings on the page whether he writes of the musty undergrowth of roots sinking into soil or the cool freedom of the ocean on his characters’ skin. The Trees is Shaw’s homage to both the destructive and generative power of the natural world.

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