A debut novel tells the story of life in a California valley through the eyes of a tree.
The hero of this book is, as the title suggests, a tree. Specifically, a live oak that germinates in Topanga in the 18th century. The tale begins, more or less, at the protagonist’s conception: a new acorn drops from a tree and is picked up by a blue jay, which is in turn snatched by a hawk. The acorn falls from the hawk’s talons high in the air and comes to rest in a crack on the dry valley floor. It waits for days in the arid dirt until a mountain lion kills and eats a deer over the crack, coating the acorn in blood: “And the acorn responded to sudden moisture as seeds do. Things uncoiled and uncurled inside.” From there, Watts takes the reader on a journey through more than two centuries of California history with Tree right at the center, from the struggles of the surrounding animals and plants who serve as the oak’s neighbors to the human settlers—Chumash, Spanish, American, and contemporary Angeleno—who alter the face of the valley. The saga of Tree becomes a window into the immensity of nature, simultaneously dynamic and everlasting, and the ways that humans have come to upset the ancient balance. Watts writes in an elegant, highly detailed prose that shows an incredible knack for chronicling the minutiae of the natural world. Even more impressive is her ability to wring narrative from the most common interactions, reminding readers of the Homeric drama unfolding all around them, at every level of life. She makes the most of the novel’s conceit, going so far as to use a Tree-specific pronoun: e instead of he or she. Far from cute, this book takes a serious look at the value of love, the impossibility of permanence, and the ways in which humans leave the world. For anyone wondering about the outcome, Watts closes the work’s first paragraph with the reminder that “there is no happiness. Only serenity lasts.”
An ingenious and satisfying tale about a single live oak.