The Trees Beneath Us

When Rick Ollerman came to me in early 2014 with an original book called The Trees Beneath Us by a fellow named Darren R. Leo, he warned me that it wasn’t a typical Stark House book. He said it fit into “the brilliant voice all his own” category, that it would resonate with anyone who had experienced a tragedy in their lives. Rick read it because author Charlie Stella read it, and recommended it.

Sometimes it really does come down to “knowing a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.” Like Charlie and Rick, I fell in love with The Trees Beneath Us, too. I loved the voice of the main character, Finn. Weary, cynical and burdened by pains both physical and psychic, he is searching for something that doesn’t have a name. Finn starts out hiking the Appalachian Trail as a novice, but pretty soon we realize that this is no ordinary hike, that Finn has some major purging, soul-searching, and flagellating to do.

Rick called it “the story of a troubled man and his transformation and ultimate redemption…intensely human and haunting.” Charlie Stella had taken a writing class with Darren Leo and called it “a humbling experience.” Author Ann Garvin said that Darren Leo “writes about healing, grief, and the intersection of the two.”

I read it and labeled it “eco-noir.” Which, for all its reductive simplicity, works.

Finn thinks he’s escaping into a world of solitude. But the more he walks, the more fellow-hikers he meets along the trail, the more he learns of the universality of pain as a shared human condition. Everyone carries theirs a little differently, some aggressively, some burying it within. The Appalachian Trail soon becomes a metaphor for this journey of self-discovery. But the book isn’t just about pain, worn-out feet notwithstanding. There is much to discover here. I love this first paragraph:

“I wasn’t suicidal just then. The granite extended up and disappeared into a cloud. A dark streak ran down the white face, mineral footprints of water. I studied that path. Through however many years, the water had eroded indents and depressions in the rock. They ran this way and that on their trip downward and always followed the path of least resistance. Given gravity and enough time, water would conquer most things.”

Just a simple image of rock, water and time. Every hiker can relate to this view. A simple image, but an apt image to reflect the character of Finn himself, who is about to go through his own inevitable changes. Like any good noir, it starts with a character who cluelessly pursues something that has the potential to destroy him.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot of The Trees Beneath Us. I want everyone to get a copy and read it. Ask for it at your local bookstore or library. Order it online. Soon it will be available as an ebook, for all you kindle and nook readers. Personally, I hope Darren R. Leo keeps writing and turns out an even better book next time. Because next time, I’m sure one of the major publishers is going to be ready for him. Remember, you heard about Leo here first.

–Greg Shepard


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